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.
The site I'm about to mention will be most appealing to you if you use Macs, and more worthwhile still if you're either able to read French or in the mood to cope with online translations.
If you're still with me, let me recommend a site from the French media figure and academic Dominique Renauld, who has put together a number of tips, tutorials, and analyses of how he uses computerized thinking-and-writing tools. These include the nice diagram of his flux de travail, or workflow, shown in the image above and elaborated here.
As the icons in that image suggest, M. Renauld makes extensive use of two programs I also find elegantly effective and have often praised here: Scrivener, and Tinderbox. You can find the section of his journal dealing with "writing tools" here, with tags for Tinderbox-related and Scrivener-related posts. He has also prepared how-to videos on, for instance, using Tinderbox for organizing research notes via tagging. Others are here, with a sample below.
If this is the kind of thing you are interested in, you will find it very interesting.
Thanks to Dominique Renauld for the effort and ideas.
Update: A very interesting four-year-old video by a man named Tom Webster, about categorizing information with a now-quaint version of Tinderbox, is available here. Today's version can do a lot more, but this gives you some ideas.
Every big peacetime project that any democracy has ever undertaken has generated controversy.
In retrospect, both the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Alaska Purchase of 1867 look like Heaven-sent, near-theft, no-brainer, "where would we possibly be without them?" steps in the development of American scale and might. But each met bitter opposition in its time.
In 2014, it is difficult to imagine the San Francisco Bay area without the Golden Gate bridge. But in 1930, the proposed bridge was mocked as an unnecessary eyesore and resisted by figures as august as Ansel Adams (who later admitted it was not so bad). Congested as today's Bay Area traffic is, it would be incomparably worse without the BART subway/rail system. Fifty years ago, voters and politicians decided to go ahead with construction by very thin margins.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964—a "big project," though not of the infrastructure variety—passed only after the Senate broke a prolonged Southern filibuster. (They were "real" filibusters in those days.) Medicare is now the sacred cow of American politics. Before the vote to approve it in 1965, it was opposed even more fervently than was Obamacare, as the fateful first step toward "socialized medicine." In the summer of 1941, when the Nazis had taken over much of Europe and the attack on Pearl Harbor was just months away, the House of Representatives approved a military draft by a single vote.
Obviously this history does not mean that just because a plan is divisive or unpopular, it will necessarily turn out to be a good idea. But it illustrates two instructive realities.
• The first, which is plain fact, is that big choices are rarely easy choices. Precisely because of their scale and impact, they involve tradeoffs, imperfections, pros and cons.
• The second, which is my opinion, is that big infrastructure investments are usually under-valued and over-criticized while in the planning stage. It's much easier to envision the here-and-now costs and inconveniences, and harder to imagine fully the eventual benefits. That's not true of all of them, but it's how I read the preponderance of American-history evidence from the Louisiana Purchase onward.
* * *
With that context, let's go back to California's ambitious and thus naturally controversial plan to build a north-south high-speed rail system. In the previous installment, I gave the basic pro-HSR case.
For today, a survey of the opposition, which I will lay out as fairly as I can, saving responses for an upcoming post. Here's why I'm happy to do so:
Even the most stalwart supporter of the original Medicare plan, or today's Obamacare, had to know that there were uncertainties and drawbacks. Big decisions are more often 55-45 than 90-10. You have to weight the pros and cons, the knowns and unknowns. I think the pros still prevail in this case, but we have to look at the cons.
The main claims are:
• A high-speed rail system might be great in theory, but the realities of this plan fall far short.
• It will cost too much, take too long, use up too much land, go to the wrong places, and in the end won't be fast or convenient enough to do that much good anyway. And, from some people,
• It's an old-tech band-aid to a problem that really calls for a "disruptive"-tech fundamental solution, from self-driving cars to the Elon Musk-style hyperloop.
And here is a sample note from a reader in California, on the challenges the plan now faces:
I am very supportive of a high speed rail network in theory; very few people I have talked to are not. Driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a good 8 hours, while by plane it is a 45-minute hop, plus the two hours and massive frustrations of the airport; neither option is optimal. People already commute two hours one way between the Central Valley and the Bay Area, daily. Outside of the reflexively anti-government types who would oppose any state project, most people can see the attraction of the idea.
However, the actual execution of the high-speed rail plan is what has gone and lost my support. While a high speed land connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco would certainly make money, the high initial investment is obvious. Shorter segments between San Francisco and Sacramento, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles and San Diego would make money almost immediately. However, none of those things is what they are building. Instead, they are building the line between Bakersfield and Merced, with the further extensions only in later phases at undetermined dates.
The line between these two cities would be, basically, useless; to attempt a simile to another part of the country, this would be as if the Acela didn't go between DC and Boston, just between Trenton and Newark. Its actually even worse, since unlike Trenton and Newark, Bakersfield, Fresno, etc. have no public transit to speak of, and so the train would only be useful for stranding you at the train station. However, while they are still planning and seeking funding for the further portions, this is all the line will be, and knowing California, this situation will last for years (it's already taken us six to even get to this point).
Building this section first, without connecting any major population center to any other, therefore seems like an investment with no hope of a return. In the meantime, the people already opposed to the system (which are particularly numerous in the Central Valley) will be joined by those opposed to government waste in general, who will point to a train that has already cost billions of dollars and still connects nowhere to nowhere, and say, "enough, pull the plug, this has been a waste of money." Once that happens, the political realist in me has to acknowledge that there is no way promises of "but if we extended it further, it would actually work" would get any traction, and the idea would be dead. As I have remarked with my friends, only half-jokingly, if they wanted to kill the idea of high speed rail in California forever, they couldn't have gone about it much better than this.
To this pessimistic political outlook, I could also add the accusations of mismanagement of the funds already spent, and the compromises that are watering down the project as it moves along (portions of the line are now not even going to be high-speed), but those are already documented by actual journalists. My main feeling, though, is that if they wanted this to work, they should have gone about it any other way than what they have.
Next up: how the plan could still be sensible, in the face of critiques like this.
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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 Erie Canal. The transcontinental railroad. The Interstate Highway system. Big, expensive, controversial—and indispensable. Is the next one in this series a new rail network in our most famously freeway-centric state?
There wasn't space to go into it at the time, but I was a fan of the project then, and have become more so as time has gone on, even as political controversy about it has mounted. Reasons for my initial pro-HSR outlook:
• If you have lived any place where HSR is up and running, you see the difference it can make. China’s high speed rail has its flaws, like crashing. But a relatively quick rail connection between Shanghai and Beijing is miraculous. So too with Xiamen-Shenzhen — or Tokyo-Osaka in Japan, or all the ones in Europe I have heard about but not yet taken.
• If you have lived or worked any place in America with even medium-speed rail service, you see the difference it has made. Amtrak also has its flaws, to put it mildly. But just imagine life along the Bos-Wash corridor without it.
• If you even start to think what already-congested, still-growing California will be like without some alternative to increased reliance on cars and airlines, you get depressed. It’s not just the congestion — at LAX, SFO, 101, and “the 405” and all other freeways of the Southland (where freeway names begin with "the"–and where, for the record, I grew up and still consider myself "from"). It’s the doomed choice between building more roads, thus chewing up more land while ensuring that the new roads clog up soon, and not building more, thus ensuring even worse Beijing-style paralysis.
• Plus, infrastructure! Of the right kind. You can think of big transport investments that didn’t pay off, especially if you start by thinking of Robert Moses. You can more easily think of ones that defined countries, eras, economies. For your old-world types, you have the Silk Road or the Via Appia. For the Japanese, the ancient Tōkaidō, or “Eastern Sea Way,” immortalized by Hiroshige, and the modern Shinkansen that covers much the same route. We Americans have the Erie Canal ...
... and the “National Road,” the transcontinental railroads, the early U.S. expansion of an air-travel infrastructure, the Interstate Highways, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, the international effects of the Panama Canal, plus others. History’s record suggests that big investments of this sort are more often a good than a bad idea. It's because of the central historic role of transport-infrastructure projects in shaping the growth of states, regions, and whole countries that I've made this post part of the American Futures series.
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That was my pro-HSR starting position. As I've read and interviewed over the past year, including on reporting trips to California's Central Valley, I've become more strongly in favor of the plan, and supportive of the Brown Administration's determination to stick with it. In installments to come I'll spell out further pros and cons of the effort, and why the pros seem more compelling. For the meantime, here are three analyses worth a serious read:
• An economic impact analysis prepared by the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm for the High-Speed Rail Authority two years ago, which looked into likely effects on regional development, sprawl, commuting times, pollution, and so on.
• An analysis by law school teams from UCLA and Berkeley, which concentrated on the project's effects in the poorest and most polluted part of the state, the central San Joaquin Valley.
• A benefit-cost analysis by Cambridge Systematics, of the "net present value" of a California high-speed rail system. (NPV is a standard way of comparing long-term costs and benefits.) It had charts like these on the likely longer-term benefits of the project, and said that the costs would be significantly less.
The remaining purpose of this first post is to tee up the topic and introduce a wonderful resource for Californians and other interested outsiders who would like to learn more. It's a complex and instructive interactive map, based on technology from our old friends at Esri and created by a group of analysts at UC Davis and elsewhere in California. It addresses the most difficult intellectual and political challenge in considering a huge, long-term project like this: namely, assessing or even imagining the long-term, dynamic effects.
You can go straight to the maps here, but let me explain a little more about what you'll find.
Judging the dynamic effect of big projects — downtown restoration efforts, canals or highways or airports — is essential because they all involve "compared with what?" questions. Building a railroad is expensive. But what is its cost, compared with that of building roads, airports, and so on? Building a railroad requires extra land. But how much land will it use, compared with instead building more highways, airports, etc? Trains use fuel and send out emissions. But compared with ...
The analyses above all go into these comparative questions. But the interactive maps present the information in a different and more literally dynamic way, by letting you zoom in and out, pan around, and compare building plans for the rail system with the main variables: cost, land-use effects, environmental impact, job creation, and influences on the rich-poor divide that is even more acute in California than in the country as a whole.
For instance, this is a screen shot of the map's depiction of the system at an early stage of its construction, overlaid on a display of pollution and health stresses in the Central Valley.
As a reminder of why the environmental situation in the Central Valley is so important, reflect on this chart — previously discussed here, originally from the Washington Post — comparing the ten worst air-pollution cities in China with those in the United States:
The first moral of the chart is: China has a huge problem. The second one is: so does the Central Valley, where six of the seven most-polluted U.S. cities are located, the other being Los Angeles.
There is a lot more in these interactive maps. For instance, here is a screen shot showing the extraordinarily valuable farmland that has already been lost to sprawl around cities from Stockton in the north, through Modesto, Merced, and Fresno, down to Bakersfield in the south. The red dots represent acreage that has been converted to housing developments, malls, and the like. (You can see this much better at the map site.)
A make/break question for the rail project is whether it would accelerate, or retard, the paving-over of some of the world's most productive farm land. To me, the analyses suggest that HSR would be an important land-saving policy, but go to the studies and the maps to judge for yourself.
That's it for now. In upcoming installments, interspersed with travel reports, there will be more about the arguments for—and against—this investment. Please prowl around on the maps, check out the studies, and follow on here for the next rounds.
For their work on the maps, and for explaining to me what they have put together there, my thanks to: Mike McCoy of the California Strategic Growth Council; Nate Roth of the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis; Dan Richard and Doug Drozd of the California High-Speed Rail Authority; and Jack Dangermond and many others on his team at Esri.
It's one thing to draw high-skill, high-wage jobs to a place that has historically lacked opportunities. It's something else altogether to find people qualified to fill them. A local answer to a national question.
In our previous chronicles of economic, industrial, and educational recovery in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi, my wife Deb and I discussed the roles of Joe Max Higgins and Brenda Lathan in helping attract major modern industries to the region, and of Chuck Yarborough, Thomas Easterling, and others in helping build the (public) Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which got started in the 1980s with the guidance of then-governor William Winter. Links to some of those previous reports, and a Marketplace broadcast from the Golden Triangle, are at the end of this piece.
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But when you bring thousands of high-wage, high-skill jobs to an area with very low median income, poorly ranked schools, and a history of farming and low-end factories rather than advanced manufacturing, you raise another question. Where are companies going to find the right people to do these jobs? Sure, lots of people need work. But the ones who have been laid off from packing houses or "cut and sew" minimum wage garment plants, or have not held steady jobs at all, may not be ready to run a billion-dollar modern steel mill or an Airbus helicopter factory.
This is where East Mississippi Community College, or EMCC, comes in.
In many stops before Mississippi, we've been impressed by the emphasis on, and seeming success of, programs for "career technical" education. For example, the Camden County High School in far southern Georgia—or, with a different emphasis the Elementary School for Engineering in Greenville, South Carolina. Back at the dawn of time, when I was in high school, "vocational ed" had a patronizing, loser tone. Today's "career technical" programs, in contrast, aspire to help people avoid the minimum-wage service-or-retail trap with better-paid jobs as skilled repair technicians, in health care, in construction and design, in advanced modern factories, in law enforcement, and in other "living wage" categories.
Many of these schools operate on an (admirable) public-good principle. They have no way of knowing where the students they're training will end up working 10 or 20 from now. So they proceed on the belief that it will be better for the region to have a larger pool of better-skilled workers. (That way, some large corporation might open a branch there, and new startup businesses might arise.) And it is obviously a plus for the students to have more skills and options, whether they stay nearby or leave.
EMCC's current ambitions are more targeted. The good jobs are coming to its "Golden Triangle" region, thanks to the efforts of its promoters. The big new factories have already brought in thousands of higher-skill, higher-wage jobs. An enormous plant from Yokohama Tires, now under construction, will bring more. The challenge is to prepare local people to qualify for them.
This is the challenge Raj Shaunak has undertaken.
Raj's family is Indian; he was born in Kenya; and as a teenager he moved with his family to England, where he went to college. I will refer to him as Raj because that is how everyone seems to know him locally. When he picks up the phone he says slowly and in a deep voice, "Rajjjj ... " or "This is Raj..." His accent is an arresting combination of UK-Indian and Mississippi-Southern.
In 1972 Raj paid a visit to Mississippi to see his brother, who was then at Mississippi State University in the Golden Triangle city of Starkville. He ended up staying and building a very successful manufacturing business with other family members.
In 1989 the family sold the business, and Raj was freed from workaday economic concerns. On October 31 of that year he dramatically threw his wristwatch into the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway outside Columbus, and began the next stage of his life. (Me: "Raj, could I call you at 11am tomorrow?" Raj: "Jim, I have no watch, call me when you would like.") Two years later, he was teaching adult-education courses and math. By 1994 he had begun what is now his major commitment: "workforce development," or preparing people in the community for the jobs that the economic development commission was trying to attract.
Here is what the results look like in practice:
• EMCC has brochures, billboards, ads, and other publicity (like what you see above) all over town, letting people know about its programs.
• Students who enroll go through what Raj calls "skills-based pathways," whose details I won't go through now but are suggested by some of the charts below. The essential point, according both to Raj and to the students I spoke with at EMCC (and alumni I met at several factories), is that students are first assessed to see what they know and what they don't; they're brought up to speed in areas of weakness; and they're exposed to the skills, practices, and disciplines required in modern industrial work. These include precision measurement, ability to read graphs and blueprints, "lean manufacturing" procedures, teamwork and flexibility, trouble-shooting, "continuous improvement," and all the other traits you've heard about if you've visited any advanced factory in Japan, Europe, China, or the US.
• In the EMCC training facilities, students work on real versions, or sometimes scaled-down models, of the machinery and products being made in the local factories. I saw them dealing with real engines from the nearby PACCAR factory, and real computer-controlled machine tools.
• I heard about but didn't see working models of the Yokohama Tire assembly line, preparing candidates for the 500 jobs the company plans to offer when the first stage of its new facility opens up. As part of its comprehensive training deal with Yokohama, EMCC hopes to prepare as many as 5,000 candidates for those positions. "What happens to the ones who don't get hired?" Raj asks, anticipating the question. "They will have much higher skills, and they will be more marketable—either when Yokohama opens its next phase [another 500 jobs], or anywhere else."
"We cannot guarantee a job for anyone. We are in the business of training people to be part of a qualified pool of applicants. We're trying to move people from dependence to enterprise and independence."
Also as part of the Yokohama deal, all of the company's own direct hires—"its engineers, its PhDs, its technicians, everyone except the CEO!" as Raj put it—will also go through an EMCC program.
• As a public community college, EMCC's tuition and fees are low. For instance, an initial skills assessment for the Yokohama program costs $50. Some other courses cost $120. According to Raj, about half the students don't end up paying anything themselves, because of various benefits for veterans, dislocated workers, etc.
• There may be an underside to EMCC and the programs it is carrying out; I didn't pretend to be launching a detailed investigation. But at face value, the people I asked—students at the school (without Raj or other officials present), alumni in the factories (some 1/3 of whom had been through EMCC), people around town—all described it as a plus. Just before our visit the state's Lieutenant Governor had come to town to praise Raj and others at EMCC for what they had achieved.
• Mississippi has the highest proportion of African-Americans of all states, at around 38%. In the Golden Triangle, the balance is roughly 50%+ white, 40%+ black, with Asians, Latinos, and others making up the rest. All the classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, and also factory sites I saw were racially mixed—if not exactly in the 50/40 proportion, then with a much larger black presence than mere tokenism.
Raj, by the way, seems to enjoy and make the most of his "other" status on the black-white racial grid. He works very closely with Joe Max Higgins, a white, Arkansas-raised sheriff's son featured in this previous installment. I heard him on a call with Higgins, who was in a rush (as always) and had to hang up. "Joe, Joe, you never have time for the brown man," Raj said, obviously using a familiar joke line between the two.
A few weeks ago Raj took me for catfish buffet at Lion Hills, a former private (and segregated) country club that has now become a EMCC dining center and golf course, and a training facility for its restaurant-management, chef-training, and "turf management" programs. He worked his way through the racially mixed group of diners and students there, seeming to slightly code-shift his accent from group to group. Bonus note: in most big U.S. cities where I have lived, "How are you?" is a pro-forma question to which no one expects a real answer. In this part of Mississippi, people treated it as an actual query, deserving an extended reply. Thus Raj worked the room with a series of several-round discussions with all the people there.
Does any of this matter, the industrial-recruitment efforts and the training of a work force? People in the state think it does. "The industrial boom in the Golden Triangle happened because leaders in the Golden Triangle made it possible," Tate Reeves, the lieutenant governor, said at local event in April. "When you are competing for businesses, you have to have the infrastructure, you have to have the quality of life, you have to have the land," Raj told me by phone this week. "But most places that are competing have those things. We now have a critical mass of trained and trainable workers. Companies have told us that this makes the difference."
That is more than I intended to write, and more than you may have wanted to read. But it is a sign of why Deb and I have found it so enlightening—and overall encouraging—to see how communities around the country are working to improve their economic, cultural, and educational prospects. We all know the problems Americans are facing, in Mississippi and elsewhere. But I'd had no idea that people like Raj Shaunak were making this kind of effort in this kind of place.
One of our partners in our American Futures project, along with Marketplace radio, is the Esri mapping/geographic-info company of Redlands, California. Here are two interactive maps Esri has recently produced that I think are potential time-sinks of the instructive rather than of the "you'll hate yourself when you spend half an hour this way" variety.
First, a "swipe map" that lets you compare recent rates of county-by-county population growth with the sources of that growth—or decline. You can see the full-screen version of the map here, which also explains its legend. In short, the darker the shade of green on the left side of the map, the faster the population growth. And on the right, a tan color means that migration has been the main source of change—people moving in—while blue means the "natural increase" of births and deaths. A pale color on either side means no growth/no change.
Click the words "Hide Intro" when you first see the map, to get a view in which you can pan around and zoom in or out. Don't click on either "Data" or "Legend" — or, if you do, click back on "Map" to get the real display. Again, darker green is faster growth, and tan is people moving in. If you forget, just look at North Dakota.
Next, we have a really extraordinary overlay of some 175,000 historic topographical maps, whose power becomes evident if you click on a place you're familiar with. You can read background from the USGS here, and from Esri here. This latter link describes some of the technical feats necessary to produce this display. It also includes a series of maps showing, as an example, Phoenix's dramatic expansion through the past century.
To try the historical maps, go to http://historicalmaps.arcgis.com/usgs/, move around to find a place you care about, click on that site, and follow the instructions to see a range of historical maps. For instance, here is the way our current neighborhood in Washington looked in 1890, when today's Tenleytown was apparently called "Tennallytown" and when, surprisingly, what are now the main drags — today's MacArthur, Nebraska, Loughboro, Wisconsin, Reservoir, Foxhall, etc—had already been laid out. Also a surprise: that nearly 125 years ago there was already a reservoir overlooking the Potomac, which gave the then-unbuilt-upon Reservoir Road its name.
And here is how my home town looked around the time I was starting kindergarten. I am not sure* exactly what the red shading indicates, but our house was at the very bottom of the red area. Most of the other area shown was orange groves.
These are places of interest to me; you will find ones of interest to you. Congrats and thanks to Esri and their partners at USGS and the Census for making these maps available.
* Update What about that red-tinted area? Reader Kit Case points out something I should have noticed myself. If you go into the Esri historical-map browser and choose old maps to inspect, you'll see, over on the left side of the screen, little thumbnails of each map you've chosen. By each thumbnail is an option to download the original map itself, as a PDF. When I download the map shown above and open its PDF, I see a full legend—including, in this case, info that red shading means areas where "only landmark buildings are shown," like schools and libraries, rather than each individual house. Which is why my family's house doesn't show up, but one right across the street, in a non-red area, does. Now I know.
"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 new issue is out (subscribe!). I've just received my in-print copy, and tonight and tomorrow, en route to Colorado, I look forward to reading the 99% of the issue's contents I had heard about in the office but have not yet seen. Through the eons I've made a point of reading as much of the magazine as possible not in galley proofs nor in intermediate versions but the way civilians would, when it arrives all nicely bound and illustrated. More reaction anon.
The 1% I have seen is my article on that evergreen topic, information overload. The reporting for this one was fun, in that it involved talking with people whose ideas, software, writings, or any combination thereof have guided my thoughts about technology's limits and evolution.
They were: Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and creator of (among other things) the brilliant early program Lotus Agenda; Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote; Esther Dyson, a friend since our teenage years and an authority on all things digital; David Allen, famous for the "Getting Things Done" approach to life and a friend since I met him in Texas ten years ago; and Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate Systems and designer of Tinderbox, an elegant and powerful Mac-based system I've used for info-management since making the Mac switch six years ago. (For a decade before that, I relied on—and still love—the Windows program Zoot, by Tom Davis of Zoot Software.) Among other distinctions, Allen and Bernstein are former guest-bloggers here.
You can see their predictions in the article. The point of this post is to mention its existence, and to cover a few update points:
1) I allude in the article to my version of the Holy Grail, "speaker-independent voice recognition." Here's the real-world example: I spent yesterday doing "American Futures" interviews in Winters, California, and this morning doing tech interviews in San Francisco. As a result, I have hours and hours of audio recordings, which eventually I need to sit and transcribe.
Someday, I will be able to feed those recordings into an automatic transcriber, and get nice typed-out versions on the other end. No system now extant comes close to working well enough to handle that challenge. Not Dragon's software, which does fine when you train it to your own voice, not the Google or Apple voice-recognition that can parse limited words and phrases. A timeline with the article says that this might work within 10 years. Many people have written in to say, No, it will happen sooner! I think they're wrong but hope they're right.
2) A version of the Holy Grail is a system that will automatically collect info from business cards and render it into usable, searchable text form. Phil Libin's Evernote has produced a hardware/software combo that is not perfect, but that unlike the voice systems has become just good enough at the task to be worthwhile from my point of view.
You bring cards into the system either by taking smartphone pictures of them, then sending the image to the Evernote cloud for processing; or by scanning them on an expensive-but-excellent desktop scanner that made by Fujitsu and sold with the Evernote brand. The software for recognition in both scenarios is steadily improving. I swallowed very hard, and tried to distract my wife, before shelling out the $400+ for the new Fujitsu-Evernote scanner. But by the time I'd run the zillionth business card through it I thought it was worthwhile. It also handles receipts and any other sort of scan.
3) Mark Bernstein's Eastgate has put out an entirely reworked new release of Tinderbox, known as Tinderbox Six. I paid to be part of the "Backstage Beta" testing and development process for this new release and consider it a big step forward in power and sophistication. More details on what is new at the Eastgate site and this user forum. Also, reviews by Steve Zeoli at Welcome to Sherwood. (Zeoli also mentions another lithe little Mac program I like, FoldingText. As he points out, it recalls memories of the fabulous, lamented DOS program GrandView.)
Tinderbox is expensive, though much less so than the scanner. Even more so than with the scanner, I consider it money well spent. Right now Tinderbox is bundled with several other (also excellent) "artisanal" Mac programs. You can read about them here. The two others from this group that I use every day are DevonThink Pro and the nonpareil writing program Scrivener. Here are the logos of the five programs on sale:
Of course, your money for an Atlantic subscription is also well spent, and it's a bargain!
Because this comes up from time to time, let me say for the record: I always buy and pay normal list price for any software or hardware I like enough to use, including all of them mentioned here.
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.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
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.
Yesterday I presented William Polk's assessment of America's strategic opportunities, and limits, in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the environs. Among other things this was a caution against continuing to make things worse through continued use of America's most obvious, though often least appropriate, means of influence: its military.
Now George Friedman, of Stratfor, has an analysis of U.S. options in Iraq and Ukraine that is very much worth reading as a complement. Over the years I've agreed and disagreed with various Stratfor presentations. This one seems very sensible and useful for me. You can read the whole thing at the original site—it's not even very long—but here are a few samples.
An obvious but often overlooked truth:
Military operations that cannot succeed, or can succeed only with such exorbitant effort that they exhaust the combatant, are irrational. Therefore, the first measure of any current strategy in either Ukraine or Iraq is its sheer plausibility.
That truth applied to Iraq:
There is no native power that can unite Iraq. No one has the strength. The assumption is that the United States could hold Iraq together -- thus the demand by some in Iraq and the United States that the United States massively intervene would make sense....
The U.S. invasion ultimately failed to create a coherent government in Iraq and helped create the current circumstance. As much as various factions would want the United States to intervene on their behalf, the end result would be a multi-sided civil war with the United States in the center, unable to suppress the war with military means because the primary issue is a political one.
As applied also to Ukraine:
When we consider Ukraine and Iraq, they are of course radically different, but they have a single thing in common: To the extent that the United States has any interest in the regions, it cannot act with direct force. Instead, it must act with indirect force by using the interests and hostilities of the parties on the ground to serve as the first line of containment....
It is not possible for the United States to use direct force to impose a solution on Ukraine or Iraq. This is not because war cannot be a solution to evil, as World War II was. It is because the cost, the time of preparation and the bloodshed of effective war can be staggering.
A golden rule of warfare:
Limiting wars to those that are in the national interest and can be won eliminates many wars.
The wisdom of Ike:
Dwight Eisenhower was... far from a pacifist and far from passive. He acted when he needed to, using all means necessary. But as a general, he understood that while the threat of war was essential to credibility, there were many other tools that allowed Washington to avoid war and preserve the republic.
Eisenhower was a subtle and experienced man. It is one thing to want to avoid war; it is another to know how to do it. Eisenhower did not refuse to act, but instead acted decisively and with minimal risk. Obama's speech at West Point indicated hesitancy toward war. It will be interesting to see whether he has mastered the other tools he will need in dealing with Ukraine and Iraq. It helps to have been a warrior to know how to avoid war.
Now he is back with an assessment of how the United States ended up in the situation it now confronts throughout the Middle East, and what if anything it might do to improve—or at least avoid worsening—its and the region's prospects. Whether or not you agree with all details of his analysis, I hope you will find it useful and clarifying, as I have, in showing the connections among the crises throughout the region, and in suggesting guidelines for U.S. response. I am posting this in full, with his permission and at his request. Now, over to William Polk:
The Mental Block and The Broadside
by William R. Polk
Analysis of foreign affairs problems often ends in a mental block. As we have seen in each of our recent crises—Somalia, Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Iran—"practical" men of affairs want quick answers: they say in effect, 'don't bother us with talk about how we got here; this is where we are; so what do we do now?' The result, predictably, is a sort of nervous tick in the body politic: we lurch from one emergency to the next in an unending sequence.
This is not new. We all have heard the quip: "ready, fire, aim." In fact those words were not just a joke. For centuries after infantry soldier were given the rifle, they were ordered not to take the time to aim; rather, they were instructed just to point in the general direction of the enemy and fire. Their commanders believed that it was the mass impact, the "broadside," that won the day.
Our leaders still believe it. They think that our "shock and awe," our marvelous technology measured in stealth bombers, drones, all-knowing intelligence, our massed and highly mobile troops and our money constitute a devastating broadside. All we have to do is to point in the right direction and shoot.
So we shoot and then shoot again and again. We win each battle, but the battles keep happening. And to our chagrin, we don't seem to be winning the wars. By almost any criterion, we are less "victorious" today than half a century ago. [continued]
Talk shows aren't bringing on Captain Hazelwood to discuss safe shipping. But they still can't get enough of the Hazelwoods of foreign policy. Also, whether the "New York Times paradox" applies to public radio.
1) Media Decline Watch, public radio edition. Anyone who has spent time in Seattle knows the voice and sensibility of Steve Scher. He has been a long-time urbane host and interviewer on the public radio station KUOW. He has made a place in the public awareness similar to that of Michael Krasny on KQED in San Francisco, or Diane Rehm on WAMU in Washington, or Larry Mantle on KPCC in Southern California, or their mainstay counterparts across the country. I was on the show sometimes, and listened to it frequently, in the years we lived in Seattle.
This story by David Brewster, himself a stalwart of Seattle journalism, on the regional news site Crosscut is a sobering account of why Scher decided to take himself out of the radio business. You can read the story yourself, but it helps illustrate public radio's version of what I think of as the modern "New York Times paradox."
The paradox is that digital technology has made the NYT more influential worldwide than it has ever been before, and more than any other single news organization in history. And that same technology has put the Times in terrible economic straits. In the Times's case, I've always assumed that this paradox will be resolved in its favor. It will find a way to convert its global brand into some kind of sustainable business.
The Scher story is a reminder that there may be a comparable "public radio paradox." In influence, public radio in all its incarnations is more important than ever. (The incarnations include the mother-ship NPR, PRI, APM (host of our American Futures-partner Marketplace), the numerous local stations, some state and regional alliances, and others.) And yet NPR layoffs and cutbacks are always in the news, and many other parts of the public radio ecosystem are in financial trouble. This paradox will be harder to resolve than the NYT's, for a variety of reasons: because there are so many players, because there are rivalries among some of them, because they're not run as normal businesses, and because their governing structure is more cumbersome than that of a family business. But it's in everyone's interest that they succeed.
2) A walk on the Aussie side, Baffler edition. On first exposure to Australia, many Americans think, "Hey, it's a nicer version of home." In many (pleasant) visits over the years, I've come to think that—both to its credit and not—Australia is a very deeply different place from the United States. In The Baffler, Sarah Burnside, an Aussie, explains some of the reasons why.
3) Oh calm down, Boomer-finances edition. Scare-mongering is one of our national pastimes, in realms from aviation safety ("My plane almost crashed!") to China's rise or budget deficits. In the American Scholar, my friend Lincoln Caplan debunks a fiscal version of scare-talk: the idea that Boomer-era retirement and medical demands will bankrupt us all. Calm down, he says:
A demographic tool has become an economic one, treating a demographic challenge as both an economic crisis and a basis for pessimism justifying drastic reductions in bedrock government programs, including those supporting children and the poor. Even at state and local levels, the aging boomer demographic is repeatedly blamed for our economic difficulties. That is a lamentable mistake...
The dependency ratio does not justify the solutions that the alarmists propose. Just as important, perhaps, it fails to account for the striking benefits accruing from the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 20th century—what the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on an Aging Society called “one of the greatest cultural and scientific advances in our history.”
4) Seriously, why are we still hearing from Cheney, Kristol, et al? After the Exxon Valdez, cable news wasn't bringing us Captain Hazelwood as expert commentator on maritime safety. After the next big air disaster, we're not going have the Malaysian aviation authorities on to offer advice. But when it comes to foreign policy, the analysts who have always been wrong and the officials who put wrong policy into effect keep commanding air time. Today, incredibly, ABC gave Dick Cheney an extended platform on This Week with more deferential questioning than Megyn Kelly had applied on Fox News.
Why? Why? If TV is not serving up Hazelwood or the Malaysian savants, or O.J. on managing a post-sports career, why are they bringing us Kristol and Cheney? In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt offers not excuses but diagnostic-style explanations. You can see them here.
5) Sports news, throwing department. For background on the "Throwing Like a Girl" concept, please see this original article and follow-ups like this and this.
The last of these links takes you to a slo-mo video of the Giants' Tim Lincecum throwing. Tim Heffernan suggests points to an incredible GIF of the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and says we need a new category, "throwing like a machine." I can't embed it, but you can see it here.
6) OK, what about Marilyn Monroe? My friend Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, says that the standard outside reaction to photos of the statue in a Chinese scrap yard, has been some variation on: Oh, those wacky Chinese! To the contrary, Adam says. He explains why here.
A few hours ago I said (sincerely) that a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today's disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence as their successors chose among the least-terrible of available options.
I unwisely included Dick Cheney, former vice president and most ill-tempered figure to hold national office since Richard Nixon, on that list.
If I'd waited a little while, I would have seen a new op-ed by Cheney and his daughter Liz in (where else!) the WSJ denouncing the Obama administration's fecklessness about Iraq and much else. They say, unironically, about the current occupant of the White House:
Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.
You want a specimen of being so wrong about so much at the expense of so many? Consider the thoughts of one Richard B. Cheney, in a major speech to the VFW in August 2002, in the run-up to the war:
Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true.
Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.
As for the reaction of the Arab "street," the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are "sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans." Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991
"The freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace." Yes, that is exactly how historians will register the lasting effects of the invasion for which Cheney was a major proponent and decision-maker. Along with the rest of his forecasts. What a guy.
The big difference between the pro- and anti-Iraq war camps a dozen years ago was not about the odiousness of Saddam Hussein, nor (with the exception of exaggerated "smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud" scare-talk) an awareness of the damage he could do in his own country or elsewhere.
Instead the difference turned on whether you imagined that an armed invasion, by the world's dominant high-tech military, working mainly on its own (since it had failed to amass UN or broadly allied support), was on balance likely to "solve" the problem, much as the Civil War "solved" the problem of Confederate breakaway and World War II solved the problem of Nazi Germany. Or whether, on the contrary, an American invasion was unlikely to make things better, likely to make them worse, and certain to entangle American lives, fortune, diplomacy, and honor in the resulting unsolved mess for many years to come.
If you believed the former, you could be confidently pro-war. If the latter, the reverse.
Last night I pointed out that many of the people who had cocksurely argued in favor of the war were now resurfacing unchastened to offer "expert" views. Now let's consider views from some people who by contrast have earned a claim on our attention, in particular about Iraq.
1) William Polk, and Chuck Spinney. I've mentioned them before, many times. William Polk—a longtime scholar and diplomat whose first Atlantic article about Iraq was published in 1958—for his views on Syria and Afghanistan and related themes; Chuck Spinney—a longtime and prescient defense analyst whom I first wrote about in National Defense—for his views on strategy in all theaters, from American politics to the Middle East.
Now they are together, with Spinney providing an introduction to a new essay by Polk about America's largest strategic choices. Sample from Spinney:
This week Mr. Obama opened the door to the possibility of bombing ISIS Jihadis in Iraq to support the floundering Shi’ite government we installed. Yet, as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent has reported, the ISIS Jihadis in Syria and Iraq are coalescing into one proto-caliphate in their common Sunni areas. [see map at top of this item].
This raises the real possibility that we could end up arming and bombing the same Jihadis. Such a development would increase the potential of unknowable blowbacks throughout the entire region, especially for the Kurdish ethnic groups in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, as well as the state of Turkey itself.
Sample from Polk, on the American predilection for military "solutions" to international problems:
The rate of success of these [military] aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low. Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred.
The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years. This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive. Today even poor, weak, uneducated and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners. Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face “fronts.” parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders. So the “window of opportunity” for foreign intervention, once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.
There is no way Washington should attempt to reenter this Iraqi agony again. The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself.... There is no longer any state to provide protection. And you do not dare turn your security over to an untested, untrusted new state structure for a long, long time....
Iraq, perhaps with help from its two neighbors [Turkey and Iran], must come to terms with its own internal crisis. It can do so; sectarianism as a guiding obsession is not written in stone. Strong sectarian identity currently reflects the insecurities and fears of a complex society in chaos and political and social transition.
U.S. intervention, already once disastrous, can only delay the day when Iraqis must deal with each other again. We cannot fix it. Television images of ISIS aside, the problem belongs to the region more than it does to us.
This counsel doesn't easily fit the part of a political speech or a talk-show segment where you are supposed to say, "Well, we have to do something." But it fits the history of the past dozen years, and long before, much better than most "do something" exhortations have, especially when the somethings involve troops, bombs, and drones.
3) Lawrence Wright. You know him as author of The Looming Tower and other articles; I know him as a friend from Texas Monthly and afterwards; we all look to him for insight on the region. His new New Yorker entry is short on to-do items but vividly describes Iraq's current agonies. Sample:
The Islamist storm passing through Iraq right now has been building up since the United States invaded the country in 2003, which unleashed longstanding sectarian rivalries that spilled over into civil war....
At the time of the American invasion, Al Qaeda was essentially defeated, scattered, and discredited all over the Muslim world. Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda then....
Al Qaeda was originally envisioned as a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation. What bin Laden invoked as an inciting incident for his war on the West was the First Iraq War, in 1990, when half a million American and coalition troops were garrisoned in Saudi Arabia in their successful campaign to repel the forces of Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait.
Bin Laden had asked Zarqawi to merge his forces with Al Qaeda, in 2000, but Zarqawi had a different goal in mind. He hoped to provoke an Islamic civil war, and, for his purposes, there was no better venue than the fractured state of Iraq, which sits astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line.
4) Eric Shinseki, again. This is slightly off-topic, but worth mentioning. In 2002, then-General Shinseki was in the news for cautioning that occupying Iraq would be a very hard, prolonged, and troop-intensive process. His then-superior within the Pentagon's civilian chain of command, Paul Wolfowitz, memorably sneered away Shinseki's warnings at a congressional hearing.
Now Shinseki is of course known mainly for his VA travails. This essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsputs his recent resignation as head of the VA in perspective. Sample:
There is a rich anthropological literature on scapegoats. Scapegoats are people (or sometimes animals) who are held responsible for calamities they did not cause, and are sacrificed.... In the words of the great anthropological philosopher Rene Girard, “The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable.”
Eric Shinseki is a modern American scapegoat.... Like Pentagon generals persuaded by body count numbers inflated by their subordinates that they were winning in Vietnam, Shinseki believed the numbers coming to him from his bureaucracy and thought his agency was improving its care for the veterans in his charge.
When the scandal broke, many in Congress called Shinseki out for weak leadership or criticized a systemic lack of integrity among VA bureaucrats. But VA administrators were just doing what those at the bottom of a bureaucracy always do when confronted with unfair metrics of accountability: Unable to change the system, they fake the numbers.... Just as junior officers inflated body counts in Vietnam so they wouldn’t be punished, so low-level VA officials responded to impossible demands for efficiency with fantasy book-keeping.
If Congress wanted to find the true causes of the scandal, it had only to look in the mirror. Congress put the VA in an impossible situation by not providing the resources the agency needed to handle the massive influx of veterans wounded in the wars Congress had voted to authorize.
To wrap up this look on the bright side, I'll say (seriously) that it is admirable of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Tommy Franks, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney,* and of course George W. Bush to have stayed off the "here's what to do about Iraq" circuit this past week.
* I should have known that Cheney's self-restraint could not last. He and his daughter share their wisdom in the WSJ. This will be worth a follow-up post.