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.
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.
Through the 1930s, a woman named Caroline Henderson wrote a popular series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly called "Letters from the Dust Bowl." She had grown up in Iowa, gone to college at Mount Holyoke, moved to the far western part of the Oklahoma panhandle to begin life as a farmer, and married a man she first met when he worked digging a well on her farm.
For a while in the early 20th century, the Henderson family enjoyed good years. Here were Caroline and Will Henderson in their heyday on their 640-acre farm, standing in front of the house that Will Henderson built. It's the same house you see in the opening picture for this post.
Then things turned very bad for the country, and the high-plains farming region, and the Henderson family and their neighbors, during the combined economic and ecological disaster of the Depression and Dust Bowl years. That is what Caroline Henderson wrote about for the magazine, in installments that looked like this when they were first published (in a photo from our bound volumes, courtesy of my colleagues Jennifer Barnett and Nora Biette-Timmons):
Here is the sort of thing she wrote:
We have had several bad days of wind and dust. On the worst one recently, old sheets stretched over door and window openings, and sprayed with kerosene, quickly became black and helped a little to keep down the irritating dust in our living rooms. Nothing that you see or hear or read will be likely to exaggerate the physical discomfort or material losses due to these storms.
Less emphasis is usually given to the mental effect, the confusion of mind resulting from the overthrow of all plans for improvement or normal farm work, and the difficulty of making other plans, even in a tentative way. To give just one specific example: the paint has been literally scoured from our buildings by the storms of this and previous years; we should by all means try to 'save the surface'; but who knows when we might safely undertake such a project?...
The prospects for a wheat crop in 1936 still remain extremely doubtful...
You can read some of her installments from the archives here.
Why am I mentioning this? Through this week my wife Deb and I are making our way across the country in our little airplane, getting away from the East Coast just before the big storm on Tuesday night and heading for a period of Western-states reporting for our American Futures series in the weeks to come. Once we get to California we'll have more to say about some surprising experiences en route in West Virginia and Kentucky.
But I couldn't let this day end without mentioning the surprisingly emotional effect of seeing the very site from which a correspondent for our own magazine wrote about her and her region's hardships 80 years ago.
We decided to make the Thanksgiving Day stop in the western panhandle town of Guymon, Oklahoma, a commercial center about 30 miles from the Hendersons' farm. This is how Guymon looked on the way in today, with a very strong, steady down-the-runway wind that gave a slow-mo feeling on approach, as if landing a helicopter. ("I guess it's always this windy?" I said to the airport manager after we landed. "What wind?" he replied—but we both knew he was putting me on.)
Then we followed the instructions that Deb had gotten from the Henderson's grandson, a professor who still owns the land and has observed Caroline Henderson's wish that it not be farmed. (He now leases it to a man who runs goats there.) We drove west for 20-plus miles, toward the small settlement of Eva. Then up another 2-lane paved road, and then looking for the intersection of two unpaved roads, known as "Road N" and "Road 9." The GPS lat/long coordinates were a big help.
We found their farm, and the remnants of the buildings whose construction and care Caroline Henderson had described so painstakingly in her dispatches and an eventual book, Letters from the Dust Bowl. With one or two details removed from the frame — modern wires here, a large commercial sow-raising operation in the distant background there — we felt we could have been looking at a scene from the 1930s, minus only the dust.
This part of the country is now connected to the nation and the world in a way hard to imagine when the Hendersons were fighting dust and drought and despair. Yet even now, this area has the distinct sense of being very, very far away from anything, and very much on its own. Here is the view to the south:
And more to the east:
And to the north. In her letters Caroline Henderson describes the barn that Will built. It is now collapsing into itself, the roof timbers falling into its interior.
Everything seemed shaped by the wind, even without its former burden of dust.
In later installments Deb will have more to say about Caroline Henderson's writings, her life, and her example. At the end of Thanksgiving Day I merely wanted to note the very powerful effect of seeing the very house in which she wrote her chronicles of a terrible stage in the country's history, the very land that she and her husband and their daughter fought to preserve. (Let alone the improbability of letters she wrote at her desk, which we saw inside the house, making their way to editors in Boston, who made them known across the country.) Most of us fancy ourselves "brave" and "independent" in various ways. But to have even this rough idea of where and how these families lived, through all those years, gives a different meaning to courage and independence. Today I am thankful for what Caroline Henderson and others like her did; and that my wife and I had a chance for this further understanding of the world they lived in; and that our magazine played its part in their saga long ago.
Now, back on the road early tomorrow.
* To read about and sign-up for our new American Futures email newsletter, see here. Or just go straight to the sign-up here.
Whether in admiring ways (from Tocqueville to Frank Capra) or disparaging / mocking (from Babbitt onward), observers of America have marveled at the informal organizational fabric that held this disparate country together. Elks and Rotary, volunteer fire departments and Junior League, Cub Scouts and Brownies, PTA and library board, neighborhood sports, of course religious organizations—these all typified and governed America as much as its formal governing structures.
Over the past 20 years, Robert Putnam has been the best-known exponent of the idea that this essential fabric has atrophied. First in 1995 in the Journal of Democracy and then five years later in the book Bowling Alone, Putnam argued that America had become a group of atomized, dis-connected individuals who owed nothing to one another and had become a crowd rather than a society.
As a reminder: California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project now being contemplated anywhere in the United States. It has also become one of the most controversial. Jerry Brown, now running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, has stuck with HSR as his signature/legacy project.
He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor's successor as House Majority Leader, who is trying to deploy federal leverage against the plan, as described in this NYT piece. He has also run into resistance from his own lieutenant governor, the former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. (Both are Democrats, but this is very much a Jerry Brown rather than a Brown-Newsom administration. Newsom, in his mid-40s, is part of the generation of politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort of statewide officials, now ages 73 through 81, to move on.) And there is resistance on a variety of other fronts.
In four previous installments, we've heard: some of the rationale for the plan; some of the most frequent criticisms; and some of the responses from the man Jerry Brown chose to oversee the project. For reference they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.
Today, 10 views from 10 readers. Actually, there are a lot more than 10 views in what you'll see below! This is a small sampling of the mail that has come in, which I've chosen to reflect main or recurrent themes. Here we go:
1) "Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward." From a reader in the tech industry in the SF Bay area.
Earlier this year I took EuroStar from London to Paris—my first time doing so since I moved to the US seven years ago. Two moments I remember vividly:
1) I checked the times and prices on their website, internalized them, opened a new tab in Chrome, and then realized that there was nothing to type. I'm so accustomed to having a myriad of choices when flying within the US that my brain instinctively says "OK, option 1 understood, now let's look at option 2". But there is no alternative to eurostar when traveling from central London to central Paris, unless you have lots of time to spare. So I booked the eurostar—the price was reasonable, and the schedule had hourly trains.
2) Seeing the English countryside woosh by, being in the tunnel only twenty minutes, and then being delivered to the heart of Paris. I was in awe of how pleasant an experience travelling between two cities can be.
Putting these together: I see that I, as a consumer, value choice and competition, but when lack of choice/competition is the necessary cost of undertaking very ambitious projects then I'll happily accept that compromise. Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward, whereas choice and competition let me save a few percent at checkout.
2) Let's leap forward, but to self-driving cars.
I'm a fan of Brown's high-speed train system, but the thing that will make the most difference in CA (I'm living in San Jose now) will be self-driving cars—not purchased by individuals, but rented by individuals for the time necessary to get them where they want to go.
I've been pushing the notion of an 2024 Olympics bid for the Bay area that would replace light rail expansion with thousands of self-driving cars. We've got Google; we've got Tesla. It's about time to get amateur drivers off the streets (i.e., all of us).
3) In theory, yes. In practice, no.
Just my two cents on your discussion about California HSR. I agree with your correspondent who said they support it in theory. I love the idea of high speed rail. I just have strong doubts given the cost and implementation strategy for exactly the reasons that person stated.
In addition, I just think if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, the State could get a much better return for less money by investing in expansion and improvement of the existing rail services across the state. For example, the Metrolink commuter rail service in the LA region is very popular, but due to limited funds can only expand very slowly even though there is proven demand. Same with the LA metro-rail program, the Amtrak California service etc. etc.
4) Will it pay off in door-to-door travel? From a reader now on the East Coast:
Lived in both SF and LA for a total of 8 years combined and have taken the flight between them more times that I can remember.
Just looked on Kayak—$134 R/T from Oakland to Burbank, 4 weeks out. Both easy airports to use, arrive at the airport 1 1/2 hours ahead of your flight and the total travel time is 2 hours 45 minutes.
$81 billion to provide a service that will be much slower and more expensive than flying.
This particular HSR proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, it is the mother of all pork barrel projects – lots of high paying jobs for something that no one needs, wants or will use.
I'm not going to comment on most of these, but here I'll add: this doesn't seem to be the right cost-and-time comparison. Air fares obviously rise when you change plans at short notice, and rail fares generally don't. Thus for a lot of business trips the air cost would be higher. And the "total" travel time leaves out the overhead of getting to and from the airports.
5) "Political ossification that prevents real vision":
As a frequent commuter to LA from Sacramento, I’ve had deep questions about the financial viability of the HSR. People choose their travel mode to LA from the Bay Area and Sacramento ... for different reasons:
Airplane: speed and convenience, with some pricing advantages in some cases. This is the true place for market share competition with HSR. These travelers are without a car when they arrive as they would be in the HSR. However LA is so decentralized and the mass transit system too complicated for a periodic visitor/tourist to use, so a downtown HSR doesn’t confer a real advantage over arriving at Burbank (the experienced travelers’ preference) or LAX. (Note also that the vaunted Bay Area transit system is only robust in the northern half—it’s as difficult as LA’s in San Jose environs.) Southwest Air seems able to meet any price challenge, and can be less costly than driving alone. Boeing’s recent foray into bio jet fuel indicates that airplanes may be able to reduce their GHG emissions even more significantly...
Auto: cost, spontaneity and convenience on arrival. Avoiding rental car costs of nearly $50/day is an important consideration, and traveling in a group is always less expensive than an airline ticket. The HSR will have almost NO penetration into this market—I have not seen an financial projections that show ticket prices competing with driving instead of airplanes. And if EVs are as successful as the ARB AB 32 Scoping Plan envisions, driving costs will drop precipitously, so the HSR is even less likely to There is currently little congestion outside of the Bay Area and the LA Basin (and that HSR riders will be driving around means there will be no relief there) and if congestion arise in the Central Valley, expanding I-5 and Hwy 99 from 4 to 6 lanes (or creating a separate truck-only road along I-5) will quickly address that problem.
Which brings me to two key issues I have not yet seen discussed:
1) The real pollution problem in the Central Valley is not auto travel between the Bay Area and LA. Trucks making the I-5 trek are a much bigger source, and agriculture, oil production and local traffic probably overwhelm the Bay Area/LA traffic stream, particularly since autos emit less criteria pollutants per mile at freeway speeds. I don’t see the HSR will make a real dent in the overall emission levels.
2) Viewing the HSR in isolation from EV penetration and airline bio jet fuel use illustrates a much larger problem in California: The failure to analyze the interplay among different emission reduction strategies. The Scoping Plan was a mess this way—it was clear that reductions in one sector would reduce the potential emissions in another, but the Plan failed to account for this effect. The HSR probably is not cost effective when compared to other measures in this manner, and the GHG allowances probably could be used much more effectively in other ways (e.g., mitigating AB 32 price increases on low income consumers). A comprehensive, holistic analysis is completely missing.
It’s also naïve to think that there will be any train ridership between Fresno and Bakersfield for the first leg just at one reader noted. There’s no advantage for train travel because there is parking shortage in either place and no real traffic congestion except briefly at rush hour ....
I’m afraid that California is going to kill HSR just as it did electricity restructuring and GHG cap and trade programs. I generally supported both of those, but the state’s execution reflects the growing political ossification that prevents real vision.
6) "Infrastructure is the real thing. Yet we are behind ... even the French!"
I'm so glad you've taken up this issue. I do hope that it broadens into a deeper discussion of the need for infrastructure investment throughout the country...
The word "infrastructure" gets thrown around like so many metaphors which become mindlessly absorbed into a kind of bureaucrat-ese; they make the speaker sound knowledgeable and on the inside. (Like referring to hotels and movies as "properties" as if speaking clinically about such things elevates the speaker to the dispassionate management elite.)
But "infrastructure" is as close to a literal metaphor as anything I can think of. If you look at the development of this country, the movement west, the development of commerce throughout the interior of the country; it was all of it hung on the firm grounding of infrastructure. Initially the infrastructure was natural—Pittsburgh arose at the confluence of three great rivers. The Erie Canal brought commerce and development to interior NY state, eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes. See also the St. Lawrence Seaway. Would Duluth, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., have become anything without it?
Railroads made possible all of the great agricultural activities in the country's interior; so many towns arose simply because of the railroads. So many centers of commerce arose simply because of the interstate highways. (And so many in downtown cores were lost because of those same highways...) Regulated telecommunications made sure that the hard-to-wire regions of the interior nevertheless got reliable telephone service. Consider the questionable viability of all of the small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. had telephone service to them not been a regulatory requirement. See also air service in the regulated era. The level of commercial and domestic development on the interior of the country could not have happened had it not had all of that publicly financed or mandated infrastructure upon which to hang. And all of it depended in one form or another on public investment and subsidy. Even the railroads.
By comparison, look at us now. Whatever happened to the vast Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus network? It used to be possible to go most anywhere by passenger rail. The de-regulation of the airlines has caused the cessation of commercial air service to large numbers of smaller, but significant, centers of commerce. Interstate highways still provide access, but it's necessary to have an inefficient and expensive automobile to use it, absent some commercial service. And high-speed internet still remains elusive to rural areas that are not commercially viable on their own. If this is the result of the "free market," you can have it. We moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution specifically to have greater support for our national commerce.
Infrastructure is a real thing, and without it, the skin and the muscle and the sinews have nothing to hang onto, no grounding against which to leverage its force. Human activity won't go anywhere if there's no way for it to go.
The Reagan and neo-Reagan political era have brought with it a kind of auto-immune (clever pun?) disease in which government investment is reviled, and the country eats away at itself. (Correction. I guess we still find the benefit in public investment in our sports stadiums.) Our attitudes of public and regulated private investment for the benefit of the whole have to change, or we will, as we are, decay to a level from which it may not be possible to recover. Why can't we chant "USA! USA! USA!" and actually accomplish something other than tearing apart third world countries? Two and a half efficient and convenient hours from SFO to LAX? You betcha. I'll have more of that thank you!
High-speed rail technology has been available for 50 years. It is an embarrassment that we are so far behind ... even the French!!
7) "Why not start someplace more modest?"
I have lived in Southern California for most of my life except for a few college years in the Bay Area. I have driven and flown between the two metro areas more times than I could count over the past 50 years.
I remember the days when we would park a car at LAX on a Friday after work, walk into the terminal, buy a ticket and walk on the plane, then rent a car at SFO and be in downtown San Francisco in time for dinner.
Today, for a trip to SF you can figure an hour for each of the following:
-get to LAX and park
-allow an extra hour for delays in airport screening
-check in, screening and boarding
-rent a car at SFO
-drive to your destination in SF area
Total time: 6 hours
Driving time: door to door if you live north of downtown LA : 7 hours
How is the high speed rail going to make this faster? Eventually high speed rail stations will become giant messes like todays airports.
Door-to-door transit time is what counts. I would never think of flying to Las Vegas even though i live minutes from Orange County airport. And driving, is, of course much cheaper.
Rather than the HSR we should focus on the urban transportation infrastructures of getting people between airports and their homes; and, improving the nightmarish 'people-processing' situation at our airports. And, what the heck, go ahead and impose a $50 toll on single occupancy vehicles driving between LA and SF. I would still drive.
And, why not start with something more modest: build decent rail transport between Los Angeles and San Diego. No one flies between those two urban areas. You would displace a lot of auto traffic by building good rail service. It doesn't even have to be `high speed'. Current Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink service is pathetic. Double track the entire distance between Orange County and San Diego; separate track usage between passenger and freight trains.
A brief reply here: the chairman of the HSR project, Dan Richard, explained in a previous round why the bond act authorizing the project required the first phase to go northward from Los Angeles toward San Francisco, rather than southward toward San Diego.
8) "The Valley is skewed toward short-term expectations."
Two thoughts: (A) the expectations from the Bay Area; (B) my concerns about access to stations.
(A) I think the [Silicon] Valley is skewed through short-term expectations from the tech startup world as well as instantaneous payback and financial self-support within 5-7 years. "How will it ever pay for itself" often only looks at the short-term revenue-from-tickets divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain—and not the ratio of industrial-impact divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain.
With Tech IPOs and mergers and acquisitions fueling a large percentage of people who live in the Bay Area, I heard few bankers saying: "I will pay a much higher price for the stocks because in 15-20 years this will create tons of jobs and prevent us from many mistakes." Furthermore, I'd like to remind people on the recent "star" IPOs and deals in Tech and BioTech:
• EPZM - market cap of 1bn, EV/EBITDA of -395.74
• XON - market cap of 2.3bn, operating margin of -213.13%
• FEYE - market cap of 5.16bn, operating margin of -118.94%, EV/EBITDA of -20.77
• BNFT - market cap of 300m, operating margin of -132.73%
• FUEL - market cap of 800m, EV/EBITDA -47.11, but an ok operating margin of -6.82%
• TWTR - market cap of 22bn, EV/EBITDA -32.67, operating margin of -92.54%
• KIN - market cap of 305m, no revenue.
• XLRN - market cap 836m, operating margin of -18.43%, $20m debt
• VMEM - market cap 356m, operating margin of -139.12%,
• CHGG - market cap 506m, operating margin -20.51%
But generally, look at the debt leverage of these companies as well, and think about what kind of assets are in the company. Sure, some patents, and for some of them actual biotech equipment, but FUEL is leveraged 11.45x, for example; VMEM is 9.34x leveraged at -31.62m levered free cash flow; CHGG has a -60.16m levered free cash flow.
I think by numbers alone the HSR might look better ;)
(B) The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam.
If I have to take a car to the train station somewhere in Oakland/Berkeley and then wait for a train that is coming up from San Diego with 1h delay (remember 500 miles! London-Brussels is only 225 miles with a single stop, etc.), just to end up far outside Sacramento and to take a bus in again, I might as well drive.
9) "A cowardly approach, but all we can hope for these days."
Interesting piece on the high-speed rail. May be worth noting that this 'build almost to where you want to go' seems to be a common dodge these days; a way to make it harder for governments not to fund the useful part of a project for Phase II. There are 2 examples of this approach in Seattle.
First, the light rail to the airport was first built, well, not to the airport. It stopped about a mile or two away. Of course, that lead to outcry, and guess what? The 'useful' part was ultimately built.
Same thing is happening with the replacement of the 520 floating bridge. [This is the Highway 520 bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake Washington.] A new, 6-lane bridge is being built from the east side. As it approaches Seattle, it will be joining into the existing, decrepit, 4 lane bridge. Anyone think the piece to actually connect this to I-5—the 'useful' part—will not be funded?
A cowardly approach to infrastructure work, which ultimately wastes money and results in sub-optimal designs, but I guess that's all we can hope for these days.
10) A chance for California to lead the way? From a reader in the Pacific NW, where California doings are often regarded with suspicion:
Thank you for your work on the California HSR system. I agree with your assessment that it is critical infrastructure work. I think there is another angle that you should bring up in a later piece: the path lighting that California is doing. If Cali succeeds, it will show that true HSR can be a success in America, unlocking the option for the rest of us. I was disappointed that the Obama administration was forced to take small actions on 110 mph trains in the Midwest instead of doing the bold but correct thing.
Here in the Northwest, we are watching eagerly. Like California, we have state sponsored trains (Amtrak Cascades) that are a very pleasant way to get around. It just happens that they are held up by having to share tracks with freight trains and are not as quick as they could be. There are many incremental improvements to be made, but a great leap forward may only be possible when inspired by success in California.
For the record: This post is No. 5. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri, here. Also for the record: there are two of these posts that come very close to expressing my own view on the project. More of that, and other pros and cons, to come.
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Earlier this week, I wrote about the work that Raj Shaunak and his colleages at East Mississippi Community College, outside Columbus, had done to prepare people in a historically poor, under-employed, and under-educated part of Mississippi for the higher-wage jobs that new industries were starting to offer. This was part of a trend we've seen across the country, notably in the South: that of high schools, universities, and community colleges addressing the common concern that a sub-par U.S. work force is an impediment to manufacturing's revival and overall growth.
For us, the EMCC story was closing the loop for earlier reports on the work that Joe Max Higgins, Brenda Lathan, and others had done to get the jobs there in the first place, and the efforts of the (public) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in preparing young people of diverse backgrounds for better opportunities.
I've heard back from Raj Shaunak, and with his permission I quote his note. The names he mentions won't matter to anyone outside his area. But it matters (in my view) that he wrote to include them. Communities and networks of this sort are what distinguish the areas we've seen that are improving their economic and political/ cultural prospects. Raj Shaunak writes:
Thanks for taking the time to tell the story of the Golden Triangle, and Mississippi. It indeed is an American story....
There are many team members who do the daily hard work of navigating individuals in their chosen pathways, tremendous industry experienced faculty and trainers, and above all a tremendously enlightened President (Dr. Rick Young) who believes at his core that the mission of EMCC is to raise all boats in our region. He provides us guidance and support and has afforded me the freedom to execute that mission.
Another very important person who is truly visionary is Dr. Malcolm Portera. Dr. Portera is a West Point MS native, is the past president of Mississippi State University, University of Alabama, helped recruit Nissan to Jackson MS, Mercedes to Tuscaloosa Al, and was crucial with Yokohama. The President of Korea invites him personally for consultation regarding U.S.-Korean economic development joint ventures.
Dr. Portera conceived of Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence (CMTE) training facility in 1997, sought and got state, local and business involved in funding the state of art training center that we are housed in presently. He is man who is helping Joe Max and me raise $40 million for the Communiversity [above].
Thanks for shedding a positive and realistic light on our region. It indeed is an oasis, but the passion and commitment are replicable elsewhere. We just need more Joe Maxs, Harry Sanders, Brenda Lathans, and numerous other civic and business champions.
"The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government." So says a well-educated young small-town mayor.
As we've spent time in smaller towns that are undertaking economic or cultural recoveries, my wife Deb and I have repeatedly been struck by a certain migration pattern. This is the presence, and importance, of ambitious people at the beginning of their careers who have chosen to fulfill those ambitions not in Brooklyn or the SF Bay Area or one of the other best-known assumed national talent destinations. Rather they've chosen to live and work in Greenville SC, or Duluth MN, or Burlington VT, or Sioux Falls and Rapid City SD, or Redlands and Winters CA, or Holland MI, or West Point and Columbus MS, or other even less-celebrated places.
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For some people the reasons are family ties to the town. For others, the search for a safer, more pastoral, or more affordable environment in which to raise children. For some, utopian escapism of the type we mainly associate with my Boomer contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s. But in quite a few places we've heard sentiments like the ones expressed below. Which boil down to, the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success.
This note comes from a young mayor of a smallish Midwest city who is now serving with the U.S. military in a combat zone. We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere:
I'm writing in response to your Atlantic article on small cities ["Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn't"], which belatedly reached me here in [Afghanistan] in hard copy in a recent care package. I'm on leave from the city for military duty this year.
As a fairly new small city mayor who is trying to push our city forward with moves like reintroduction of two-way streets downtown and reimagination of public spaces, I predictably loved it. I also wanted to draw your attention to an important, related story.
There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them. Doubtless there have always been extraordinary people drawn to local government, but something truly unusual is happening, in my view, in the caliber of young professionals drawn to this work now.
The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government. See, for example, the Code for America phenomenon.
In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.
Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don't know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.
I agree, and will have more to say about this soon.
I've been offline for more than a week because of duties 24/7 at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here is a sample that is now up at the Ideas Festival site, an hour-long discussion two days ago with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
I say in the set-up for the interview that Geithner's book, Stress Test, is actually very good, considered just as a book. This is a point that Michael Lewis made in his NYTBR treatment of it too. All appropriate credit to Geithner's co-author, Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal.
The next Aspen interview I'll be looking for, when it goes up on their site, is one I conducted an hour later that same day with Amanda Lindhout, on her truly extraordinary memoir A House in the Sky. Stay tuned.
The real importance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Reparations article, which is still attracting deserved attention, is that it is not mainly about repayment in a literal, financial sense. Instead, as I understand it, it’s about a larger historical reckoning or awareness. “Truth and reconciliation,” you might call it.
By analogy: Whether or not Germany had ever made monetary restitution to Israel or to other victims of the Nazi era, to know anything about modern Germany is to recognize that it has attempted to face its past. In contrast, to know anything about modern Japan or China is to recognize their difficulties in facing episodes from their 20th century past, mainly of the '30s and '40s in Japan's case, and the '50s through mid-'70s in China's.
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The importance of recognition is why I was so struck by the monument (shown above) in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, to the three victims of a famous lynching there 94 years ago this month, in June 1920. A traveling circus had visited town; a local white young woman was allegedly raped; six young black men were rounded up and taken to jail. Then a mob of many thousands of white people stormed the jail, seized the black men, "tried" them on the spot, and convicted three. Those three men—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—were hanged that evening from a lamppost in the center of town, while the police did virtually nothing to interfere.
A history of the episode, The Lynchings in Duluth by local author Michael Fedo, includes a photo of the murdered black men, two still strung up and one's body lying on the street, as a rapt white crowd looks on. That photo was made into a popular postcard, and a cropped version of it, minus the bodies, is the cover of Fedo's book, as shown below with a related work. The full-frame photo of the lynching is too gruesome to include here—but again, in keeping with Ta-Nehisi's theme, it's important to note that there was a time when people bought it and sent it through the mail. This happened more often in the South than elsewhere, but it was an American rather than a Southern evil.
In another book of essays about his growing-up in Duluth, Zenith City, Michael Fedo (whom we happened to hear speak in Duluth earlier this month) describes the region's long, willed suppression of all mention or memory of the lynching, which naturally made me think of the forced-forgetting of Tiananmen Square in China. He had barely heard of it as a child but stumbled upon a reference to it in the 1970s, and wrote his history, which was originally called They Was Just Niggers, after a remark by someone in the lynch mob.
In 2000 a local group began a movement to commemorate the episode. Three years later, the dramatic public-art memorial shown in the photo at top was dedicated at the very site of the lynching. It has full-sized bronze renderings of the three men, unsparing descriptions of the violence, and a large quote from Edmund Burke: "An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent."
The monument is in a still-rough area of Duluth's unevenly improving downtown. Here is the scene directly across the street, looking from the memorial plaza toward the Paul Robeson ballroom and the site where the three men were hanged.
Still the monument is there, barely one minute's walk from the main-drag Superior Street. I can't confirm what I heard from several people in Duluth: that this is the only such monument of its type in America, or at least the most detailed and personalized about its victims. (For a somewhat skeptical perspective on the monument from a Duluther, see this on NPR a few years ago.) But it's different from, and more un-ignorable than, anything I've seen elsewhere, whether in the deep South or in some of the Midwestern states where the Klan flourished in the 1920s. It is in the spirit of the reparation of which Ta-Nehisi writes.
Duluth is a city I've long enjoyed and admired, and in upcoming dispatches my wife Deb and I will go into some of the business-and-technology reasons to pay attention to it now. (Plus, it just won the meaningless-but-interesting Outside magazine 2014 poll on overall best place to live, edging out Asheville, N.C. in the semifinals and Provo, Utah in the finals.) For the moment I'm concentrating on its role in "reparations," and the surprising step this far-Northern, always overwhelmingly white city decided to take.
With that prelude, let's dig back into the mailbox on the "Endless Civil War" theme, especially in the wake of the narrow but welcome defeat of neo-Confederate candidate Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. Say what you will about why Sen. Thad Cochran felt that he had to appeal to black voters, the plain fact of his doing so is a plus. Much of what we have reported from the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi has also been on-balance positive about the state, for instance here, here, here, and here. Readers agreed and disagreed here and here and here.
In our previous installment, I quoted a Jackson-area attorney, Zachary Bonner, on how tired everyone in Mississippi was of being treated as a specimen of America at its most benighted and, well, Faulknerian. He specifically complained about a CNN "Parts Unknown" feature on the state by Anthony Bourdain. Now some reader response to his views.
"Disappointed." From a reader in Philadelphia:
I have to say I’m a little disappointed in your giving so much valuable blog space to someone like Bonner.
I’ll take the multicultural take of Bourdain, PyInfamous, Stacey Winters, Geno Lee, Willie Seaberry and Willie Simmons every day and twice on Sunday over that of a privileged-for-life white dude with a JD who works for a suit and tie law firm and lives in the lily-white enclave of Ridgeland. A law firm, I might note, that contains not a single woman or person of color, but plenty of names like [a classic Southern name, ending in III]. So much for the lip service to “it doesn’t matter if the man is black or white”.
Rich white dudes like Bonner and his law firm buddies have been speaking about and controlling the narrative of Mississippi for 400 years. We don’t need another one telling us how Bourdain got it wrong and we certainly don’t need him speaking for Geno Lee.
"Whites in Mississippi won't help blacks." On a parallel theme, from a reader in Texas:
About seven years ago I attended a conference of Catholic charities that had received funds from [a large] Catholic foundation. The purpose of the conference was to train the attendees in good corporate governance and financial sustainability because the foundation's grants only lasted three years and would not be renewed.
One of the nonprofits attending was one founded by a Jesuit in, I believe, northern Mississippi. That agency served poor rural African Americans.
At lunch after a fundraising presentation the ED of the Mississippi agency expressed frustration and concern to our table at the inapplicability of the recent training to their situation. Fresh from the training and full of hope among like-minded folk we offered thoughtful suggestions.
The ED just shook her head and said something to this effect:
In Mississippi white people do not give to nonprofits that serve African Americans.
"At least some hope for a better future." Ronald Parlato, who now lives in DC, writes:
I've been reading your articles about Columbus and the Golden Triangle of Mississippi with great interest.
I am a Connecticut Yankee, longtime resident of DC, but Columbus is my second home. I have been traveling through the Deep South and especially Mississippi for years. As many have said before me, "You cannot understand American history without understanding the South", and through my many visits I feel I have at least begun to understand what the South was and is.
When I first told my Northern liberal friends that my wife and I were going to Mississippi for vacation, I got more than the usual quizzical stares. "You shouldn't do that", they said. I was going into the maw of the beast and my visits legitimized an eternally racist, ignorant, and backward society. I was, in other words, a traitor.
My wife was told to remove the cotton plant from her desk at the office because it was racist and oppressive, a reminder of the chains of slavery.
Photographs of meticulously restored antebellum houses were off-limits. How could I have stayed in those symbols of a brutal Southern past?
The more I stayed in those wonderful houses, of course, the more I learned.
In one, I read the plantation logs and journals of the original owner. What I had read in Time on the Cross (the economics of slavery) became real, immediate, and instructional. I could see what this particular slave owner had spent on his slaves (food, shelter, clothes, health care, etc.) and what was his return.
Along the way I stopped in eateries, antique stores, gas stations, police stations, and fire houses. People were always willing to talk, and old folk went on and on about the way it was. I didn't bring up civil rights, nor did they, and as a result I heard about the regular, ordinary life of small Southern towns.
Southerners themselves say that they have an inferiority complex and are very welcoming to Northerners who seem to take a genuine, non-judgmental interest in their lives and their history.
On more than one occasion, I would be asked by a curious passers-by in out-of-the way places in Mississippi, "What on earth are you doing here?". In other words, why would a Northerner, of all people, voluntarily visit the South. Northerners, when hearing of my sojourns in Mississippi were no different and would always ask, "Do you have family there?" - the only possible reason for visiting such a benighted place.
After these many years and a lot of Southern history (if you haven't already, I would suggest Eric Foner's work on Reconstruction, the best of the lot [JF note: Yes, I have, and agree]), I have begun to understand Southern resentment, conservative politics, and the cultural distinctness of the region.
Not only is Mississippi on the bottom of the all socio-economic indicators, is is the most fundamentalist of any state. Dismissal of evolution and acceptance of the Bible as the literal word of God are common.
Conservative politics are easier to understand if observed through this lens.
I return to Columbus every year for at least two months, and I am now on the board of the fledgling Tennessee Williams Foundation. [JF note: Williams was born in downtown Columbus, and his birth house is now a museum.] I have taught literature at Mississippi University for Women, helped produce the yearly performances of Williams by the Tennessee Williams Tribute, and write for a local paper.
Most importantly I have made many friends - many I would never have met back home. I keep intending to write the stories of many of my local heroes who despite everything - poverty, prison, backwoods upbringing - keep working and working hard. Their refusal to take 'government handouts' is not political, but personal.
I have been looking for [Mississippi] success stories for years and maybe with Severstal, Yokahama, the Air Force Base, the W, Eastern Mississippi Community College, and Tennessee Williams there is at least some hope for a better future. I have seen too many Mississippi towns die a sorry death, and I want Columbus to thrive.
None of us planned it this way, but my wife Deb and I happened to be reporting from Mississippi at just the time when when Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Case for Reparations" article, which starts with scenes from Mississippi, was coming to such deserved attention.
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What Deb and I have been discussing is loosely parallel to, rather than directly engaged with, the issues of legally enforced racial injustice that are central to Ta-Nehisi's story and its follow-ups. We have been looking at the ways a part of the country with this heritage—on average quite poor, historically under-industrialized, with about three times as great an African-American population share as the country as a whole (about 38 percent in Mississippi, vs. about 13 percent for the United States) and with a history of racially based mistreatment of its black population—moves ahead now, as every part of the country aspires to do. We've had Ta-Nehisi's articles in mind as we've been writing, and I think the accounts of Mississippi then and Mississippi now can usefully be read together.
As a reminder, here's a "swipe map" by John Tierney, matching proportions of black population across the country with median household income. (Click "Hide Intro" to see more of the map. You can zoom in and out and pan to different parts of the country. Also you can follow a link to a more fully featured, but non-embeddable, version of the map.)
For background, reports mainly from Deb on extraordinary efforts in innovative Mississippi schools are here: one, two, three, and four. And mine on the surge of heavy industry in the "Golden Triangle" of east-central Mississippi are here: one, two, three, four, and five.
In the latest installment, I quoted a reader from the North arguing that on balance it would have been better for America if Mississippi stayed poor. The reasoning was that industries coming into lower-wage, emphatically non-labor-union Southern states were part of a "race to the bottom" that has immiserated the middle- and working-class everywhere. That reader and others faulted me for not laying out my own views on the race-to-the-bottom question as regards Mississippi, whether or not I'd done so in previous books or in reports from China (which is of course as the center of "race to the bottom" patterns worldwide).
I'll do that, but as part three of today's three-part plan. Part 1 is factual clarification from Joe Max Higgins of Columbus, Mississippi, who has been at the center of some recent reports. Part 2 is a selection of messages from readers on the "race to the bottom" / "let those Southerners stay poor" theme. And part 3, after the jump, is my summary view.
Part 1: Joe Max Higgins and the new industrial wage. Earlier I mentioned that Joe Max Higgins, of the business-promoting "Golden Triangle LINK" organization in Columbus, Mississippi, had one big guideline for the industries he hoped to attract. Namely, that they pay a lot more than people in the area already earned.
As a benchmark: the median household income in the United States is just over $50,000 per year. In many parts of Mississippi, it's barely half as much. Then when the enormous, high-tech Severstal steel mill opened up outside Columbus, employing hundreds of people at an average pay (before benefits) of $80,000, Higgins said that he regarded this as a huge win for his area. A reminder of what it's like inside the mill, from a company video that exactly resembles what I saw:
Many people wrote back to say: Eighty thousand dollars, on average? No way. You've been conned! So I went back to Higgins. He showed me evidence of a formal agreement between the mill and the State of Mississippi that the average pre-benefit pay must be at least $70,000. And at the latest audit, it was just under $80,000.
I'm not getting into the possible differences between median and average earnings there, or what the workers give up or gain by being in a non-union plant. I'm saying that there's a reason the mill had so many thousands of applicants when it opened up, which is that its jobs are such a step up for local workers. (And, before you ask, there is still an installment coming on how local people are being trained for these jobs.)
Part 2: Let's hear from the readers. There has been a very large volume of mail, from which I am trying to take representative samples. Here goes.
• Think of the TVA as reparations. A previous reader objected to the TVA even trying to speed development in Mississippi: "To be honest my chief reaction was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy." Another reader, originally from Wisconsin, responds:
I moved to the mid South about 12 years ago, and very few days go by when I don't find it alienating still. However, your piece on the Black Belt in Mississippi caught me up.
To reference TNC's recent Atlantic article, a TVA designation of "Megasite" plus Federal/State/Local tax incentives could be argued as the sort of economic policies that target the development of poor communities, and if focused on areas historically affected by racist intent/policies (e.g., chattel slavery in the Black Belt of the South followed by sharecropping, lynching, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, etc., etc., etc.), a sort of reparation. (Did that sentence contain enough hedges?!)
Although I too decry the political shift I feel in the nation as a whole which I think is in large part driven by the weird Republican values emanating from the South, I believe policies of infrastructural development such as the TVA "Megasite" are essential for moving forward. My electricity comes from TVA and in general I do not herald their track record (e.g., Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman TN). However, I was heartened to read about the "Megasite" policy. TVA is not perfect but as a hybrid Federal/State/Private entity, maybe it can be steered toward more progressive ends (could not for the life of me find a better word than progressive there...)
An aside: a pox on those in my home state [Wisconsin] who have lost the true "conservative" Republican values of my father's family who fought for the Union.
• Also about the TVA. A reader, who discloses that his firm does business with the TVA, adds this note:
A minor nitpick with your reader who dislikes the TVA megasites due to it being federal funds helping a region of the country she dislikes politically.
The TVA does not receive federal funding, it is a self funded agency, funded through ratepayers and bonds.
• "They may be charming, but their policies are killing us." In support of the original "let Mississippi stay poor" message:
Add me in as another regular reader who has a hard time much caring about economic gains in white Mississippi. [JF note: the regions I've been writing about have been majority black, and the factory work forces are integrated.]
As a young person, I was too much of a snob to work at learning this history of my own country -- much snazzier to concentrate on Europe and Africa -- so I'm doing some catching up as a semi-retired adult. One of the insights I've gotten through working my way through the Oxford History of the United States is that the shape of modern US society was set by the absence of representatives of the Confederate States from Congress in 1860-65. I don't just mean emancipation, though that's the root. I mean the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant colleges, "internal improvements", a modern-ish federal government and direct taxation system. With the Southern obstructionists around, we could not have had any of that.
And the southern states, insofar as they are controlled by whites (almost entirely) don't seem to have changed much: they exist to impede all forms of necessary national public policy: access to health care for all, education, reasonable gun control, etc. In this era, climate crisis is the moral equivalent of the emancipation struggle and these states, along with some western types who imagine themselves solitary cowboys, would rather all our descendants suffer than sacrifice their phony extractive culture.
The only reason I can imagine attending to the economic struggles of the South is that the majority of this country's Black citizens live there. It would be an additional white crime to abandon them to the unhindered depredations of their white neighbors.
What to do I don't know, but you lose me when you are celebrating industrial development using non-union labor that props up a state whose representatives throw themselves against everything that makes this country and the world work. I'm sure they are charming, but their politics are killing us.
• "Do these people think we can't read?" A note on anti-Southern attitudes:
These comments show explicitly an attitude that has been pretty common from the beginning of the civil rights era- hatred and contempt by progressives for those they consider not sufficiently with the program, most obviously southerners but also non-elite, non-progressives whites outside of the south.
Do these people think we can't read? Or are too stupid to understand what their real feelings, intents and motivations are?
• "The real question is, what's the worst we will put up with?" Mike Levsen, the mayor of Aberdeen, South Dakota (whose city we have coincidentally planned to visit), writes:
We will always try to steal other cities’ assets when the opportunity is offered (and have done it); it is expected of us as city officials. So, I don’t question the Mississippi people, even if it correspondingly causes distress elsewhere. Interestingly, nobody ever suggests we are destroying the work ethic of those companies by giving financial help, the way it is assumed by many that social welfare breeds laziness.
To me, a more essential question demanding answer is “What will we put up with”, not where.
There will always be people occupying the bottom one-fifth or one-tenth.
We spend much time discussing who, what, where, why…but I don’t care about those questions.
Whether by race, geography, legacy, age, or any other demographic indicator.
Whether or not they are responsible for their own situation or undeserving in any way.
Whether they are able to exit from that status or not
They are among us.
Those exiting will be replaced by others who will be a part of our life, our country, our future, and occupy that bottom cohort.
The question is, what is the worst state of life for that bottom rung that we will put up with. How bad does the housing, nutrition, healthcare, educational opportunities, family services, environmental protection legal system access, and all the other things that are degraded by a lack of money have to be before we say it can’t continue. …what’s the worst the rest of the country will put up with...
It’s not important where they are, what’s necessary to acknowledge is that they exist in that situation, and everyone else is also the worse for it.
• "Strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt." From a reader in a big East Coast city:
As a Citizen of this great country, someone who has more than a passing acquaintance with American history in regard to industrialization and things north/south and also someone who builds all over the United States and Canada, I continue to wish that we could somehow meet in the middle on the work issue, because there truly are two legitimate sides to this story.
The actions of various Southern state governments and their business partners actions have been strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt. To wit, South Carolina. They receive $1.92 in Federal funding for every dollar paid, gleefully using the differential as a subsidy for their low wages, low property taxes and poor services, all while issuing a steady stream of anti-Federal, pro-State rhetoric.
States like South Carolina are all about the business owner and only about the worker in the most basic sense that they see them as units of production, nothing more. From a development perspective the best monetary example of how South Carolina would act if they were allowed is by building the Burj Khalifa, which cost $1.5B for 5M sf, or $300 psf.
On the other side, we have the legacy airline and automobile manufacturing unions, who have continued to make their own collective beds through continuing to demand luxurious pensions, European-style working hours, confiscatory base wage, overtime and double time rules, and refusal to modernize their approach towards work and a continued erosion of quality of work that used to separate them from non-union workers. The best development example of how this still works in the US is the Freedom Tower, which cost $3.8B for 3.8M sf, or $1,000 psf, or 3.3 times the cost of the Burj Khalifa.
I’m equally frustrated with both sides. People in work for Boeing in South Carolina need to make more. People who work for Boeing in Washington need to make less. Benefits need to generally equalize on both side.
• And what if Lincoln had lived? To wind up this part for now:
As a native of the upper south (Kentucky) and a student of history generally, I consider myself “southern” in a general kind of way. I have two graduate level degrees, and am currently living in the Mid-West. My speech, however, is peppered with the southern and country idioms, and while in informal company, I am still apt to drop the g’s of words ending in “-ing.”
My political beliefs are left and Democratic, despite the conservative nature of the Kentucky Democratic Party: I can point to real things in my family’s more humble beginnings that are the products of the hard work of my forebears, certainly, but which were made available TO my forebears during hard times by Democratic administrations. THAT is the Democratic Party in which I believe and for which I still vote unflinchingly...
Your post yesterday regarding the affirmative answer given by an urban resident of a Rust Belt city to your hypothetical question, “Should Mississippi remain poor?” prompted a reaction in me, as I’m sure it did (and will) with many others, perhaps none more so than residents of Mississippi. My own reaction, however, is more of an “Amen!” of sorts rather than a typical “circle the wagons” response from a fellow southerner.
I have taken enough history courses to know understand how the anti-union and union-busting policies of the South in general have led to a “national race to the bottom” as your correspondent pointed out, with Northern industries decamping to states where unionization is at best discouraged, but where the State actively pursues policies favorable to “business growth” – low taxes, right-to-work laws, lax environmental regulations, and so on. The move of the textile industries from New England to the lowlands of the Carolinas and Georgia after the Civil War is just such an example.
I am also aware that as much as the South has been guilty of economic depredations against its Northern kin, it has also been a victim. After the Civil War, the untapped natural resources of the South were snapped up at bargain prices by Northern interests, whether it be West Virginia’s and Kentucky’s coal, Georgia’s timber, Alabama’s iron, etc. These new industries were, of course, abetted by the aforementioned state policies that gave them, more or less, a free hand to do as they pleased, whether to the resources they controlled and processed, the workers they employed, or the land they despoiled.
As an American citizen (not one of Kentucky or ‘the South’ alone) with progressive political beliefs, I can understand your correspondent’s dark suggestion that perhaps, yes, Mississippi should be left poor. If increasing economic clout means “the Mississippi model” works, and therefore, her policies should be emulated elsewhere, then I might tend to agree with her. I’ve watched President Obama try to solve some of the nation’s toughest problems with both hands tied around his back by an intransigent opposition that has sometimes appeared willing to destroy the nation in its zeal to “save it” from Obama’s policies. Examples of this, and other, clearly race-based policies, such as those that have rolled back voting protections in the South, etc., have just left me disgusted.
I don’t know how you feel about “alternate history,” but I’ll go one better than the Rust Belt correspondent. I very often wonder how different (and presumably BETTER) the nation as a whole would have been had Lincoln lived, and, instead of his passive “prodigal son” reconciliation with the South, he had been inflamed with a real sense of remaking (with a "Radical" Republican Congress) the South for all times:
- the entire political and military leadership of each seceding state being seized and forcibly removed, either to the North or West, or otherwise given the opportunity to be banished abroad, but removed from the South at the least;
- the political and economic vacuum in the South filled with the growing ranks of the Northern urban poor and immigrants from abroad;
- massive agricultural and land reform;
- investments in infrastructure projects and education; and
- perhaps even a redrawing of jurisdictional boundaries, such as redrawing state boundaries, creating new states with new names, etc....
Such a thing as this “remaking of the South” is unimaginable in American society or history, and thankfully (for the South, perhaps, at least) we had a man with Lincoln’s temperament instead of, say, Stalin’s at that time and in that office. From the nation’s fraught history with race, and with that region’s desire to seemingly stymie nearly every effort to advance public policy that brings light to the darkness and knowledge to the unlearned, it would seem, sometimes, to be a price worth paying.
Over the past few weeks, my wife Deb and I have been reporting on Mississippi's efforts to move itself up from the bottom in rankings of educational achievement, and similarly to move itself up from being overall the poorest state in the nation.
Question for the day, from readers: whether any success it achieves will necessarily come at the expense of other places, especially in the North. Of course movement in rankings is by definition zero-sum. The real question is whether greater prosperity for Mississippi has to mean less somewhere else.
For background, here are some installments about the Mississippi educational efforts: one, two, three, and four. (No matter what region you're from, be sure to read at least the first couple of essays by students in that final, fourth item.) And these on industrialization: one, two, three, and four.
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Now, a note representative of several I've received. It concerns how to think or talk about economic activities in the non-union, low-wage, politically conservative, ever-shadowed-by-racial-injustice (cf. Ta-Nehisi Coates) areas of the Deep South. Here goes, quoted in full for context:
I have an odd relationship with your blog. I read it avidly and yet I find myself alienated. You prick my despair about the country, in fact. In your most recent entry in the 'Lo and Behold, Industry in Mississippi' series, you asked for feedback and so here is a little exploration of my vexed relation to your work and perspectives.
First off, I'm a native of a Rust Belt city and much of my family originally migrated here from the South. In fact they were slaveowners who left the South to industrialize the North - and they were very successful at it, probably even a factor in the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War.
But I grew up in a different time - the time of decline of industry. I grew up with the decades of desolation and loss. I understand the impact of abandonment, wholesale and profound, that has infected the Rust Belt in the post war era. I know the economic decline of Rust Belt cities to be deeply imprinted with American racism as well as the relentless and devastatingly effective rightwing campaign against unionization. The deindustrialization of the North cannot be separated from the success of Southern style politics and ideologies over the last 40 years. The American people have suffered serious economic harm as a result.
So forgive me if Joe Max Higgins does not seem charming. To be honest my chief reaction to reading this piece was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy. I think the South should be quarantined, politically and economically. They suck on the federal tit whilst fanning resentment of the poor, among many (many!) other political sins. (The best thing about the Dixiecrats is that there were less effective nationally when stranded within the Democratic Party than they are today, when they control Republican ideology and the Supreme Court. )
I wasn't satisfied by your reply to this comment [from another reader, a man in New York]:
"The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class."
You didn't address the above point. The South has had a baleful influence. Perhaps what is in process is the lasting destruction of American broad based prosperity, thanks in no small part to rise of Southern political values. There are no signs of a turnaround for most in this economy - it is only getting worse. Yet continuing on this path would be tragic. It would fundamentally undermine the whole American experiment. I would like your series a lot more if you addressed this.
I keep telling myself I won't do this any more, but I wrote right back to the woman who sent the message:
I have a reaction of "And therefore, what....?" to your views.
Suppose one, like me, is in favor of unions, is in favor of more progressive taxation and a fairer economy, is against what many Southern politicians now stand for, has written endlessly about the "new nullification" menace, and so on. Should I say: "Well, I hope these people in Mississippi stay poor?"
I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you'd like to do to, or with, Mississippi—or St Marys, Georgia, or Greenville, SC—as the action part of your view.
To which she replied:
As to your question - should the people in Mississippi stay poor? I would suggest taking a serious look at the answer 'yes'. If industrial jobs in Mississippi are in fact a part of a national race to the bottom and if that race is destructive to the larger good then the race itself should be stopped. And one consequence of that could be a slow down in the industrializing of Mississippi.
I don't enjoy making careless arguments and there are a number of 'ifs' in the above paragraph. The point is that there is a larger picture. What conventions, regulations, and laws enable corporations to make states compete against each other for their investment? Some of that should simply be outlawed. Some of that sort of thing is actually disallowed under trade pacts - why should it be allowed for states?
It's taken decades to build an economy of downward mobility. Financial deregulation, corporate trade deals, and union busting has required not only policies but ideology and economic theory. It has been a bipartisan effort and academics and the media have contributed. Virtually all of the conventional thinking in my view is tainted by this history. But the issues we are discussing impact the real economy of jobs and wages. We must not avoid painful disputes even though bringing up these difficult issues is a downer in the context of a feel good story of a poor corner of the country doing better.
If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll indulge a further word about the ongoing juggling act for a writer like me. Over the past three-plus decades, in at least four of my books and at least a dozen long Atlantic articles, I've tried my best to apply reporting, reading, thinking, and observation to questions of exactly this sort. The movements of industries among nations; the movements from region to region within a nation; the forces that make whole economies seem to progress or stagnate; the forces that are uniquely necessary if America is to seem "fair"; the burdens of history, race, public policy, and private institutions in shaping American mobility, and so on.
I know that I've written all this stuff. Most readers, probably including this one, don't. But if I say, "go read 'How the World Works' or More Like Us or 'How America Can Rise Again,'" I sound insufferable. And if I don't, I'm left with people who "are not satisfied" because I haven't dealt with a topic at a time when they happened to be noticing or in a post they're seeing on its own. As the world's problems go, it's small. But it is one I have to think about it.
Enough about me! Let's turn now to a reader in Florida. He writes:
I agree with you —I wouldn't lead every Mississippi piece I wrote with a racial disclaimer either. After all, TNC's writing has focused as much on Chicago as Mississippi—which makes sense because parts of Chicago are historically, literally Mississippi north.
That said, two things about two of these posts really struck me and both relate to the historical relationship of Missisippi and Chicago. Key quote from your post:
"Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," [Joe Max Higgins] told me.
In 1914, with the onset of World War I, European immigration halted overnight. By 1915, booming, shorthanded northern industry was "buying" southern black farm labor and creating the Great Migration—and changing America, north and south, forever.
Southern government and industry (mostly agriculture) fought with every legal and extra legal tool it had to halt the migration. "The southern narrative was you will cripple our society by stealing our niggers." It was routine for southern local governments to ban labor recruiting; to ban migration itself through brutally enforced vagrancy laws. My hometown in Florida passed an ordinance in 1916 requiring a $1,000 license for any recruiter seeking black labor. Not getting the license was a crime.
You ask, don't people know these things?
No, they don't. They know about water fountains and epithets. They know nothing about the migration that made both redlining and the successful civil right movement possible by breaking up the status quo.
In my opinion, WWI and the Great Migration are the two most important forces of 20th century. One caused the other. They are, I think, without question the most important racial forces of the 20th century. And we as a country know nothing about them. We know so little about them that an economic developer in Mississippi doesn't see the exquisite historical irony in the South "buying" the industry that the north used to buy its labor and grow the industrial power of the US.
This is plenty to chew on for now. I was tempted to add a "This I Believe!" summary of my economic views, but I am going to save that for tomorrow. I have actually written it already, so I will actually post it after I let it cool.
I will though close with one transition point, tied to the first reader's note. I respect her clarity in following her logic to its conclusion. Still, I completely disagree that the rest of the country might have stayed richer and fairer if our poorest state stayed dirt poor. While I'm at it: I also don't think America would be richer, fairer, or happier if China were still dirt poor. That's a topic-sentence assertion for now. Supporting sentences soon.
Two emails came arrived within minutes of each other over the weekend. Both have to do with the reports my wife Deb and I have been doing from the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi: the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. The reports started here, with a catfish fry; included this and this about schools and this and this about industry (and beer); and this about seeing small towns by air. There is more to come, from factories and from an orphanage and a college, plus a Marketplace report soon.
The two letters I'm quoting now are long but worth reading back-to-back. The first is from a man who grew up in the area—Lowndes County is one of three counties in the Triangle—and now lives several states to the north:
As a native of Lowndes County, MS and an alumnus of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, I wanted to let you know how thrilling it is to read the series of articles by you and your wife about my hometown and high school. I especially appreciate the clear lack of schadenfreude in the series so far. This is one of the few times in my adult life that I have had the privilege to read coverage of Mississippi in a national publication in which Mississippi was not used merely as a foil to highlight racial, social, or economic progress elsewhere. I understood perfectly what Joe Max Higgins meant by,"When Eurocopter came in, people started walking upright a little bit."
The population and income maps included with the most recent article are excellent, illuminating, and depressing. I'm curious to see whether you will further explore the intersection of race and economy in the Golden Triangle. I would love to know whether the benefits of the economic development in the Golden Triangle have accrued to blacks as well as whites. Does the economic development help race relations or strain them? I assume it's a mixed bag, but I would love to hear more details.
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Those questions of race and economy are in store for upcoming installments. For the moment, let's turn to the second letter, from a reader in New York. He said he had read some but not all of our Mississippi reports, and also has read Ta-Nehisi Coates's justifiably praised article on reparations:
[T]alking about the success of a few Mississippi towns in attracting industry where the average annual income is $14,000 and comparing this with the reparations article which provides a pretty severe indictment of Mississippi (not to mention Chicago, etc.) provides a hell of a contrast.
The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class.
When I travel in the south among my all white family and friends who never interact with anyone more ethnic than a Catholic, I am struck by how rigidly that part of the world is regulated into two societies. Not as if this does not occur in cooler climates. In New York, however, there is no room for that.
Maybe I am missing the larger message in your series, and I know that you are averse to polemics, but I feel that glossing over the underlying original sin while applauding local civic restoration based on a depressed workforce and continuing segregation in schools and the workplace is not as helpful as you might like to be.
I try to avoid the "Oh, yeah?!" temptation to send nasty instant feedback to emails, and generally succeed. You never get in trouble for the peeved message you don't send. In this case I wrote right back, testily.
I didn't dwell on one point of detail I thought was completely wrong, the "never interact with anyone more ethnic" part. Having just come back in Mississippi, where I had spent a fair amount of time in the civil-rights-era late 1960s*, I was reminded of how much more cross-racial minute-by-minute exposure people are forced to have in the typical small Southern town than the typical big Northern city. Obviously this does not mean that race relations are more "equal." My point is simply that the big-city phenomenon of seeing mainly people like yourself all day long is harder to pull off in a small mixed-race town.
Instead I wrote back to say: Okay, would you like me to begin every dispatch with a reminder of Mississippi's troubled past? The Klan, the lynchings, Jim Crow? Don't you think people know this? He replied:
No, I don't think people "know" this. I think most people have a very short view of history which basically includes only those things that happened in their immediate observable universe. I also think that there are about 60 million people in the South who know this perfectly well and either deliberately ignore it, blame the victim, don't care because "those people" are not part of their tribe or are deeply invested in perpetuating it and all of whom benefit from it directly and live with that guilt. Not to mention those who still do the work of the Secessionists.
In the contrast between these notes are many of the themes and tensions of our politics now, and many generations in the past, and probably many generations to come.
* * *
As Ta-Nehisi Coates's article has underscored, we're dealing in the 21st century reverberations of divisions set up 300-plus years ago, in patterns of economics, agriculture, civic organization, and of course racially based slave-holding. Yesterday Andrew Sullivan posted a fascinating map reminding us how closely the blue/gray divisions of 150 years ago match the red/blue political divisions of today. Recently I posted a map showing that the parts of America where the highest proportions of African Americans live in the 21st century are the parts where Africans were brought to work as slaves several centuries ago. A reminder, via screenshot, with darker shadings meaning higher black proportions, and the three dots being the Golden Triangle.
As an illustration of another kind of persistence, consider this Esri "swipe map," which shows racial makeup on one side and obesity rates on the other. Click on "Hide Intro" to see more of the map; zoom in to see county-by-county patterns. Darker shading on the right-hand map means higher African-American percentage; on the left-hand map, it means higher obesity rates. You'll see that in some parts of the country there's a strong correlation in the patterns; in others, not. (For instance, parts of Kentucky and West Virginia have relatively low black populations, and relatively high obesity rates.)
There are many books' worth of possible responses to the themes in these notes—as I am reminded by reading The Hamlet and Absalom, Absalom! for the first time since college. For now, two points only. One about journalism, and one about race.
* * *
The journalistic point involves what we are looking for, in Mississippi and the other places we are visiting for this American Futures project. Is it supposed to be a "balanced" or "comprehensive" view of America? No.
Through the years we were living in China, I never once imagined that my wife or I could offer a comprehensive view of what was going on. The country is too big, dynamic, unknowable, and contradictory for any sane person to dare that.
The U.S. is more familiar and knowable, at least for me, than China. But it is no less contradictory and complex. So I don't imagine for a second that I can offer a "balanced" view of this country of any of the places where we have spent a week or two.
But I can tell youthings I didn't know before we got there. And by both design and happenstance, more of those have been positive than negative.
By design, because we have been looking for smaller cities or areas where turnarounds of one sort or another have been underway. Downtowns that have come back; new industries that have started up where older ones had closed; schools that prepared students for jobs, or mobility in the broadest sense; places that have retained or revived a "thick" sense of civic engagement. Finding and reporting on these places doesn't eliminate America's countless other problems. But does anyone not know about those countless other problems? To me, successes at the moment are more interesting, more instructive, more "news."
By happenstance, because every place we've been—including, notably, the town where I grew up—has provided some surprise we'd had no idea of before arrival. Let's be specific about Mississippi. If you already knew that there was a big industrial boom underway in eastern Mississippi; and that a Russian company making steel and a European company making helicopters had decided this was the place to do business; and that there was a school like MSMS in the nation's poorest state, producing students who wrote essays like this—well, you're ahead of me. Neither my wife or I had any idea of this before our first trip a few weeks ago.
* * *
Now, the point about race, which is also the point about the Civil War and everything before and after.
Start with the nationwide comparison: Americans know, or should, that racial unfairness, starting with slavery, is the country's original sin and its ongoing social and political axis. It was at the heart of our bloodiest war. Countless other things are going on in America, many of them not at all connected to race. But many, from the pattern of our cities to the growth of our prison-industrial complex to the nature of our schools, are still obviously related to our long racial history.
We all know that, or should. But if some Chinese or German or Israeli sociologist shows up and says: "Here I am in America, and I observe that they have racial issues ..." Our natural response is: Thanks a lot for that great insight! That had never occurred to any of us. What can you tell us that's useful or new? As outsiders sometimes do, notably in this theme with An American Dilemma.
So too with the American South. For someone like me to show up in Mississippi and begin every dispatch by saying, "Here I am in the South, and I observe that they have a history of racial injustice ..." does not get anyone very far.
What we can try to do is observe the ways the schools, the industries, the churches, the institutions are evolving and operating in this environment, and their effect on the various groups living there. Which will be the point of some upcoming installments.
When not otherwise noted, any photos in our American Futures coverage are by me or my wife Deb Fallows, including the one at the top of this post.
* For the record: I happen to have spent two years of my toddlerhood in Mississippi. During the Korean War my dad was a Navy doctor, and he was posted to what was then the naval hospital in Jackson. As a teenager I worked for several months in 1968 for the Southern Courier civil-rights newspaper. It was based in Montgomery, but I spent much of my time covering voter-registration and food-stamp-rights efforts in Mississippi and Alabama.
This evening James Bennet, the Atlantic's editor-in-chief, will be leading a conversation with Deb Fallows and me about the American Futures travels we've undertaken for the past few months, and for which we're about to kick off another extended trek.
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It will be at the historic Sixth and I Street Synagogue in Washington, whose address I will let you figure out for yourself, starting at 7pm. If you're in the vicinity, please come by.
Our partners in this project have been Marketplace, with whom we've done a series of joint broadcasts and web features, and the mapping company Esri, of Redlands, California. What you see below is the counterpart of a first-grader's finger-painted version of an Esri map. This is one I've thrown together to give a rough-and-ready idea of where we've gone, and where we're likely to head next.
It's zoomable and so on, but the main idea is: Red stars show places where we've made extended visits, green ones are shorter couple-day stops -- in both cases, including areas we'll start describing soon. (Including Greer, South Carolina, and Fresno and Winters in California.) The blue stars are places we're looking at starting a few days from now. And the parti-colored lines are a random assortment of routes we actually flew in the airplane, or places we went on our California swing, by car. (The dotted lines are by car.)
Here is a more sophisticated-looking map, by John Tierney and Svati Narula, showing the cities about which people have written in to suggest a visit. The biggest the green dot, the more proposals we've received.
In principle we'd love to see all of them. For a look at what we've learned so far, hope to see you this evening. Then we're off for some of the sites in blue below:
Last week I mentioned the very impressive "career technical" high school my wife and I had visited in Camden County, on the Georgia coast just north of Florida. Now, some of the background on why the changes in this area have been more striking to us than in many other places we have visited.
The picture at the top of this post shows the ruins of the Gilman Paper Company, in the coastal Camden County town of St. Marys. "Ruins" is the only possible term. Back in the early 1970s, when a young Jimmy Carter was running for governor of Georgia, Gilman was a fearsome political force in the state and essentially the only employer for many miles around. "Gilman Paper Company is the only major Georgia industry south of Brunswick and east of Waycross," its manager said in a speech around that time. "It can safely be stated that not less than 75 percent of the economy of Camden County is directly dependent on Gilman Paper Company." The picture below, from a Harper's article about St. Marys in 1972, is the same site as in the shot above, when the mill was running full-tilt and employing most of the working-age people in town.
Back at that same time, when I was just out of college and my soon-to-be wife had a year still to go, we were -- along with my sister and half a dozen other contemporaries -- part of a Ralph Nader team dispatched to write about pollution, tax evasion, economic peonage, and other aspects of company-town life in now-hyper-stylish Savannah and other paper-mill towns in Georgia. The result was this book.
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St. Marys was the most bleakly Dickensian of the places we visited. The mill paid good wages, in exchange for all-encompassing political and social control. Its corporate attorney was also the State Representative, and was the county attorney too; the result in tax policy and environmental regulation was predictable. The mill's manager was the local Big Man. The company's owners -- the Gilman brothers of Manhattan -- lived an art-patron life far removed from the harshness of their family's company town. In the past few years, whenever I have gone to brutal, polluted, boss-run factory towns in remote China, I have thought back to St. Marys. It wasn't that long ago that China's current reality was tolerated in the U.S.
What happened next is too convoluted to attempt to explain here. In brief: a young millwright named Wyman Westberry, who had become disgusted by what we'd now consider China-scale despoliation of the local river and marshlands, drew press attention to what was happening in this little enclave. That's him at left, around the time we first met. He called me late one night, we went down to learn about his town, and we wrote about him in our report. Eventually 60 Minutes and national and statewide media got interested in St Marys. In the midst of the furor, the local Big Men put out a contract to have Westberry killed (the going rate was $50,000, but the would-be hit man decided to keep the money but not carry out the hit). The administration of new Governor Jimmy Carter began paying attention; and -- at the end of an Elmore Leonard-worthy tale -- Wyman Westberry ended up surviving, and much of the local establishment either ended up in prison or died before coming to trial.
You can read the subsequent blow-by-blow -- and I actually hope you will -- in a Washington Monthly article I wrote ten years after all the drama*, or in a (subscribers-only) Harper's article by Harrison Wellford and Peter Schuck from 1972, or this more recent Forbes piece on the "Fall of the House of Gilman," or from our original The Water Lords book. [*UPDATE The scanned PDF of this issue of the Washington Monthly, by Unz.org, is a little squirrelly in its layout. But when you come to what seems to be the end, on page 19, you can click the > button at the top of the page and it will take you to the rest of the story. Or, you can click on the Entire Issue button, which should do the trick too. I am biased, but I think it's a gripping tale. For a while it had a movie option, which is something can't say about a lot of things I've written.]
As I'll describe in future dispatches, Wyman Westberry has stayed in town, and become a formidable figure -- and in a very different role from mill wright at a paper mill. That's him, on the left, a few weeks ago with me near St. Marys in the Okefenokee Swamp.
The city too is transformed. When we first visited, the pollution from the paper mill was so thick and caustic that, as in a scene from modern China, even the Spanish moss had been poisoned from the trees. Now the trees look like this.
Back then, there was a perpetual layer of ash on cars and houses downwind of the mill. Now the historic part of St. Marys -- the part not subject to strip-mall sprawl near the Interstate and the Kings Bay naval base -- looks like this:
And across what had once been a fouled and polluted marsh:
All of this is set-up to the story we have looked at during our recent trip to St. Marys. What happens when the company at the heart of a Company Town shuts down? How different is the new "company town" life that has come with the area's dependance on a large Navy base? What does the resilience of a man like Wyman Westberry tell us more generally? And is there any chance that a place like this, with its impressive high school and its ambition to become America's next space port, can become a "talent magnet" like Greenville or Burlington?
More in upcoming installments. Here is the route to St. Marys, in red -- with the last little jog to avoid a prohibited zone over the Navy base.
And what the scenery on the way down looked like.
More of the St. Marys saga, starting with the "spaceport," to come.
Deb Fallows -- whose relevant ID for the moment is as a linguistics expert and a fellow-traveler and co-pilot on our American Futures journeys [plus, my beloved wife since we were 21 years old] -- has a new post up, on the role of descriptive word clouds about the cities we have visited.
She starts with the wonderful town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, shown in word-cloud form above and in a late-summer photo last year, below.
The cloud, which she prepared with John Tierney, is based on combing through the interviews and notes we collected while there. She also has a form for submitting characteristic words about other towns. I could possibly be biased, but I think it's very much worth checking out.
As I mentioned in introducing my wife Deb's very popular post on "What We Mean When We Say Hello," she and I, along with John Tierney, are all doing reports for our American Futures project, and they all show up at that project page. But now John and Deb will be doing their installments on their respective author pages (his, and hers).
John has just put up a fascinating post on "The Power of Mapping." It explains some of the ways we're trying to use Esri maps and other visual tools in both planning and chronicling our travels.
Here is a screenshot of one of John's interactive maps: it shows high-tech manufacturing firms across some Southeastern states. You can click on each of the dots for information about the company, zoom in and out for closer-up or broader views, pan around, and so on. Also, as John explains, you can layer these results over other variables to see patterns. This is the Greenville-Greer-Spartanburg region of upstate South Carolina.
On her own new section of this site -- they grow up so fast! -- Deb Fallows has a very interesting post with reader reaction on the topic she raised last week: the conversational cues and questions people use to find out about others they have just met. These range from "What's your parish?" in Chicago (as it happens, her native city) to "What are you?" in Philly (as it happens, mine), the latter inviting an answer of "Polish," "Italian," etc.
I'm mentioning it here both on its merits and for housekeeping reasons. All of our posts, plus John Tierney's, from our ongoing-though-temporarily-snowboundAmerican Futures series will appear together on the AFproject page. But now Deb and John will have their own items in their own author-channels, rather than having them show up here in potentially confusing hybrid-byline mode. Please go to Deb's and check this out!
Update Deb's post is about a range of first-meeting conversational ploys. One of the readers she quotes mentions the approach I've used over the years. "So, what's your story?" Everybody has one.
A more cynical media-centric option is one that Erik Tarloff, my friend and birthday-mate, employed in his novel Face Time. That is to begin any talk with anyone in the DC or NY media by saying, "Love you work!" Or "that was a great piece" or "You've been on a roll." Sigh. Probably works in LA too, or anywhere.
Back to the high road: When you know someone's general field of work, but haven't followed what he or she has been up to recently, there is the always-dependable "So, what are you working on?" or "What's your current project?" Again, this is not cynical: it's a way to get people talk about what they're interested in -- which is when most of us are most interesting.
When we were in Greenville SC recently, I was surprised to learn that a very common follow-up to the greeting of “How do you do?” or “Nice to meet you,” is the question “Where do you go to church?” I wrote about it here.
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Lots of you wrote in about this question, “Where do you go to church?” Some of you considered the question to be intrusive and even offensive. From a reader in Washington DC: "If someone asked me 'Where do you go to church?' I'd be flummoxed at least and offended at worst." Others were not at all flummoxed, and wondered why I would be surprised. And on a web forum at city-data.com discussing just this question, writers from places as distinct as rural Maine and Kentucky said this expression is commonly heard.
Many more of you reported other queries that you would be likely to say or hear in your own hometowns. So far, I would say that your suggestions fall into 3 different categories: social orientation, work, and neutral territory. (And to be clear here, I’m ruling out pickup lines; that’s another topic. I am referring to general conversation openers that aim for a sweet spot between impersonal and too personal, between vapid and too pungent.)
Social orientation: The two women I met in Greenville SC, interpreted the real meaning of “Where do you go to church?” as something to orient you socially, like “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” A New Yorker who posted on the city-data forum echoed this and suggested the socially orienting analogy there might be pizza: “It's just like someone asking you what grocery store you go to or what pizzeria (New Yorkers love pizza) you go to,” she wrote.
Readers far afield have other candidates. One reader from Hawaii writes that among those who grew up on Oahu, the question is: "Where did you go to high school?" Same from a reader from New Orleans. “Where’d you go to school?” he clarified, means high school, not college. (This plucky reader also said a close second is, “Who’s your mama?” but I think he was pulling my leg.)
In Boston, a reader says “Where do you live?” elicits a single name from the 351 towns around Boston. “If you live in Somerville, you say Somerville; you would never say 'near Cambridge.'” I’m guessing that in Boston, people are fishing for the same kind of information as in my hometown of Washington DC. Sometimes we look for geography, but more often, I think, our mental maps outline the culture and lifestyle of suburbs or neighborhoods.
Work: “So, what do you do?” wrote another reader from Washington DC. I heartily agree that in Washington DC, this is the default question. Everyone here knows that it is a not-so-veiled way of assessing power and connections, the currency of the town.
Interestingly, in Burlington VT, people said this same question actually means “What do you do for hobbies?
A bi-coastal resident writes that in the Bay area as well as Manhattan, the version of the work question is a fill-in-the-blank: "And you’re with… ?" And lest you misinterpret, she writes, “this refers not to the person who brought you to the gathering, still less to your spouse or companion, but to your work affiliation.”
Neutral-ground: There is the totally tame: “How ‘bout this weather!” Or the slightly more risky: “How ’bout that game!” A version from the small-town south: “How you getting along?” And from a larger town, where everyone doesn’t know everyone: "So how do you know [the host]?" One big-city reader suggests this question is not so innocent, but can actually be a useful probe: “We're a networking city and even small events are often big.”
A resident of VT explained a Burlington-specific question, “How did you get here?” This isn’t meant to be prying, she said, it’s rather that so many people have a back story of how they finally landed in Burlington. But it’s also a little tricky, a question you would warm up to, instead of one you ask right off the bat. Interestingly, when we were in Alaska last year, people told us that you never ask that question, since the backstory could be sketchy.
Finally, one weary-sounding man who has lived all over the south, southwest, and even the east wrote in: "It never occurred to me … that Hello/How Do You Do might have any formulaic follow-up. So, to answer the question, in my experience the answer is 'Nothing.'"
We’d like to hear from you, to help fill in the grid of who says what where. Please email me, with your geographic coordinates, at Debfallows at gmail.