James Fallows

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

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

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

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Free to the Right Owner: A Five-Star Resort in Western China

    Visionaries, looking for someone to continue what they have started.

    Part of the village of Yellow Sheep River, at harvest time. That's a fiber optic cable, part of the effort to modernize rural China, running through the middle of the scene. This and next photo by James Fallows.

    Five years ago, my wife and I traveled to the remote village of Yellow Sheep River, in the arid and impoverished Gansu province of far northwestern China, to report on an ambitious philanthropic-plus-business effort underway there. I wrote an article about what we found, called “How the West Was Wired.”

    The main characters in the story were the people of the village, and the two successful tech entrepreneurs from Taiwan who decided they had an ethical duty to use their resources and know-how to improve prospects in a very hard-pressed area. The local people in the village were mainly children who had to walk long distances to a rudimentary public school; their parents, who mainly had traveled hundreds of miles to factory jobs in the big cities; and their grandparents, who mainly cared for the children and tended the farms. Here's a view of the oldest and youngest generations bringing in the crops.

    The entrepreneurs were Sayling Wen, who founded and ran an info-tech business, and Kenny Lin, Wen’s classmate from Taiwan, who had gone to the U.S., become an American citizen, had a successful career at Bell Labs and NYNEX — and then come back to China to help Sayling Wen with his project. After Wen suddenly died in 2003, at age 55, Kenny Lin took over the project as his own. For more about their story, which obviously moved me (my wife and I have remained friends of Kenny Lin and his family), you can see the article

    Kenny Lin, on a hill overlooking Yellow Sheep River.
    Photo, from the original article, by Ariana Lindquist.

    Now we reach the current news. Part of Sayling Wen's vision for revitalizing this part of China was creating a spectacular and modern five-star conference and resort facility on the border of the Yellow Sheep village. The scenery of this part of Gansu is breathtakingly beautiful in way that recalls Wyoming, and Wen's ambition might be compared with that of Jackson Hole -- or Aspen, or Banff. Along with other plans to bring industry to the region and improve the profitability of its farms, he had a plan for making it a corporate and governmental retreat-and-conference site. My wife and I stayed at the resort and can attest to its comfort and up-to-date ness.

    The Yellow Sheep River conference center, at upper right, with the village to the left. By Ariana Lindquist.

    The family-foundation board that has run the Yellow Sheep River conference center has now decided that it no longer wants to keep it in operations. But it has decided that rather than sell the facility, or simply turn it over for commercial development, it would like to give it -- in its entirety, with no debt or other encumbrance -- to anyone who would like to operate it for similar philanthropic ends. For example, a foundation that would like to use it as a regional headquarters, or other non-strictly commercial group looking for an outpost in western China.

    Conference at Yellow Sheep River, via Kenny Lin.

    If you are interested, please contact Kenny Lin directly, in Beijing. His email address is KennyKSLin <at> gmail.com. Or I will be happy to forward messages to him. I can't speak to the practicalities of running a facility in Yellow Sheep River, but I know the Lin family well enough to vouch for the sincerity and idealism of this offer.

    Scene on a horse ride from the conference center. This and the next photo by James Fallows.

    One more view, of the ancient Great Wall not far from the resort. Let Kenny Lin know if you are interested.

  • In Honor of the Chinese ADIZ, Today's Novelty Aviation Footage

    The people who drive on China's roads may soon be able to fly in its skies!

    This is not part of the Chinese ADIZ. 

    [See update below.] The planning behind, and consequences of, China's expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the East China Sea remain obscure. Of the various attempts to explain it, for now I like Robert Kelly's on Asian Security Blog best. It emphasizes the contradictory possibilities -- expansionism, miscalculation, domestic posturing -- that might all simultaneously be true. Previous coverage here, here, and here.

    Related question: Should we worry that the U.S. government, having quickly taken a "this is bullshit!" stance by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ, is showing contradictions of its own, in urging U.S.-based airlines to file flight planes with the Chinese authorities?

    No. This isn't the airlines' battle.* They already file flight plans for every operation with various national and international authorities. It's no harm to them to copy the Chinese in too. The immediate danger of this ADIZ is that it will be one more occasion for national-pride chest-bumping among Chinese and other (Japanese, U.S., South Korean, Taiwanese) military aircraft, in an already tense region where an accident or miscalculation could have big and dangerous consequences. It makes sense to minimize the chance that passenger airplanes could be involved.

    And to be clear: this is a potentially very dangerous situation. The build-up to it has involved animus from many players, but this latest move is all China's doing. 

    Now let's look on the brighter side, all still in the aviation theme.

    1) Private pilots' licenses come to China. Huzzah! This is one more step down the path I examined in China AirborneThat is, China's determination to will itself into leadership as an international aerospace power, despite its lack of (a) airports, (b) airplanes, (c) an advanced aircraft or engine-building industry, (d) flyable airspace, and (e) pilots. Everyone knows about its efforts to address the first three shortages -- or would, if they'd read my book! Last week I mentioned a long-awaited move on the airspace front: reducing the amount under the military's control. And yesterday we hear: easier requirements for certification as a pilot.

    This is good news. Though anyone familiar with road traffic in China will pause for reflection on reading this quote, via the NYT:

    On Friday, The Beijing News carried the headline: “In the future, getting a private pilot’s license will be just as easy as getting an automobile driver’s license.” 

    2) World's shortest commercial flight: the apparent champ. Via the very interesting site of Matt Dearden, a UK-born bush pilot working in Indonesia, this clip of a 73-second flight from one hilltop airstrip to another. Between the two airstrips is a very deep valley. The dramatic part of the video starts about 30 seconds in, with an approach to one of the tiny airstrips.

    World's shortest commercial flight? from IndoPilot on Vimeo.

    Passengers pay $5 apiece to save the many hours the steeply down-and-up-hill journey would take on foot. In case you're wondering, the locale of this flight is West Papua -- which is on the western, Indonesian half of the island whose eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea.

    Also in case you're wondering, the elevation at these airfields is around 4500 feet, which is high-ish; and the landing strips appear to be around 1000 - 1200 feet long, which is short. Impressive. (Photo at top of this post is from Dearden's site. And here is a sample dramatic entry from his Papuan flying adventures.)

    A different pilot's video of landing on one of these airports is here.

    3) World's shortest flight: runner up. It's from my ancestral homeland of Scotland, and it's about 90 seconds from takeoff to touchdown -- as you can see in the video of one entire flight, below. You'll note that about 40 seconds after takeoff the pilot is already reducing power to prepare for landing.

    Compared with normal commercial journeys, this up-and-down flight path seems very odd -- but it's not that different from the routine training exercise of "flying the pattern" that all pilots have gone through. Pattern work involves taking off, climbing to 800 - 1000 feet above the ground, and doing a series of four right- or left-hand turns to make a rectangular path above the ground before coming in for landing again, a minute or so after takeoff. My point is simply that reducing power and speed very soon after lifting off is a familiar rather than an alien thing to do.

    * Airlines have identifiable home countries -- American Airlines, All-Nippon, Singapore Air, etc -- but those with international routes truly do operate, like shipping lines, in a beyond-national-borders, international-commons regime. It would make a bad situation worse to bring airlines further into it, as players, or pawns.

    Update I've heard online from a number of people who disagree about airlines and the ADIZ. Their main point is that China's goal is to change the status quo in the region, and any step that accommodates the new, unilaterally proclaimed Chinese rules effectively recognizes this new status quo. Eg:

    The thing is we didn't have to issue guidance - the airlines could have complied on their own in order to deal with the potential safety issues - without the USG weighing in and undermining our position on the ADIZ and putting space btw Washington and Tokyo/Seoul in a really high profile way at an awful time. Major unforced error on our part.

    I don't think "strategic ambiguity," in the form of letting the airlines comply but not saying so in public, would necessarily be a more forceful or sustainable position. And officially telling U.S. airlines not to follow the new Chinese rules would have raised the problem I mention, of putting normal businesses in the midst of an international struggle.

    In any case, I think a U.S. goal should be to put airline operations to the side, as a minor, routine part of the drama. The real question is what the U.S. and other governments do to contain (and not stoke) the tension in the region, and to respond to this expansionary move on China's part. 

  • Building a Museum: Report From Down East

    A Maine couple defies the odds -- and helps to build community in the process.
    By John Tierney

    The restored facade and new civic space in front of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art.

    By John Tierney

    If you’ve been following the reports here by Deborah and Jim Fallows in their American Futures series, you know that the small city of Eastport, Maine, a town that has faced hard times in the past, is a place with lots of good things going on. Most recently, we’ve learned from Deb about the positive, “yes-we-can” attitude that has become widespread there, reaching into (and being reinforced by) the language people use. And from Jim, we’ve heard about efforts to build harbor traffic for the deep-water port there and an ambitious, large-scale project to harness the hydro-kinetic power of ocean tides and river currents.

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    Now let’s look in on another bold venture in Eastport, this one of much smaller scale and different orientation, but no less important in the way it’s helping to revitalize this coastal community. This is the story of how an art museum -- The Tides Institute & Museum of Art -- got started there in the past decade, and what it’s come to mean in the life of this small community of 1,300 people. 

    Hugh French, an Eastport native, and his wife, Kristin McKinlay, were living in Portland, Maine, in 2002 when they decided -- in the great American spirit of mobility -- to move. Where, they weren’t exactly sure.

    The former Eastport Savings Bank building before renovation.

    But on a visit back to Hugh’s hometown, they saw an old, dilapidated building for sale, the former home of the Eastport Savings Bank, and decided, virtually on the spot, to buy it and create an art museum there.

    Laughing at the memory, McKinlay told me: “We went through the building. It was in dire shape, and yet we came out saying to each other, ‘We have to do this.’” Laughing harder, she said, “It was somewhat a matter of putting the cart before the horse.” What she meant was that they hadn’t previously made a conscious decision to move back to Eastport, much less looked for or purchased a home there, but they bought the building anyway, planning to create a museum. Their thinking, I realized as McKinlay explained to me the origin of the Tides Institute, was akin to Ray Kinsella's inspiration in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

    Workers removing bank vault from building.

    They saw something in that run-down building: hope -- and a future. “We realized there was a need here for the kind of cultural institution that could help revitalize the town,” French said. “We knew that Eastport needed a cultural anchor; that was the genesis of the concept. Of course, we knew it would be hard: the town has a small population, there’s little money here, and there’s no big urban center nearby.” But they went ahead anyway, believing in the project -- and in the town. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t feel Eastport was already moving in a positive direction,” McKinlay said.

    They started out, McKinlay told me, by “putting up a website first. We did that even before we moved from Portland to Eastport. We wanted to elicit responses from people up here about what was needed. So, having a website made it useful to gather ideas about collections, research resources, and so on. Also, potential funders were able to look at it.”

    They chose the name with deliberation: rejecting Eastport or Passamaquoddy in favor of Tides, thinking it to be less limiting geographically, but still suggestive of the area and the community's aspirations for connection to the world beyond. (“Tides connect everywhere,” French noted.) And they chose Institute because they felt it implied the kind of innovative institution they were hoping to create, with an educational mission and “an open-ended institutional capacity.” French explained, “We didn't want to needlessly box ourselves in.”

    Painting by Arthur Cadieux, in collection of Tides Institute.

    Thanks to family heritage, French already had a collection of objects on which to build -- paintings, historical photos, oral histories, and the like -- much of this, cultural material about the sardine canneries that once dominated the economic life of Eastport. But they knew that building a museum meant they’d have to add substantially to their collection.

    Helping to make that happen was the French family name, well known in town. McKinlay explained: “It’s been crucial to our success to have a known quantity in town doing this. Previously, there wasn’t an institution here that people knew and trusted, so people who had artwork, documents, or other valuable things to donate sent their items elsewhere – to other museums around the state or beyond, to the archives of their alma maters, etc. But because people knew Hugh, knew the Frenches, they were willing to give us their items of value. So, things started coming in.”

    Main Room in the Tides Institute and Museum of Art

    The museum’s collections cover different time periods and places, but are regional in many respects. Included among the kinds of items in the permanent collection are Native-American basketry, hand-painted ceramics, boat models, portraits of ships, and photographs from the sardine canneries. The total museum space is allocated roughly evenly between the permanent collection and special exhibits.

    Native-American basket in collection.

    Once their extensive reconstruction of the building was completed, French and McKinlay started doing exhibits right away. That helped to build the collection, too. “People would come in to see exhibits and say ‘Oh, I have something you might want to add to your collection.’”

    One of their recent exhibits showed the work of Andrea Dezso, a well-known artist who happened to come through Eastport, saw the museum, and approached French and McKinlay, saying, “I’d love to work with you.” So, she put together an exhibit based on her research on the area. Some of her work was her take on the imagination of a child working in the sardine canneries, one piece of which is shown below.

    Eastport school children viewing TIMA exhibit of work by Andrea Dezso 

    Another exhibit, this past summer, featured the installation of a separate structure on the plaza in front of the museum, containing a large camera obscura. McKinlay said that the exhibit, called Vorti-Scope, was “terrifically engaging to people of all ages.” (This video shows Vorti-Scope when it was installed in Fredericton, New Brunswick.)

    When the Tides Institute first opened, it was one of the few places in Eastport open on Sundays. Sometimes the fledgling museum had only one or two people come in over the course of a Sunday – or nobody at all. Now, on Sundays in the summer, it's not uncommon for as many as 150 people to come through.

    Pottery by Tom Smith 

    Apart from building their collection and attracting an audience, another constant worry for French and McKinlay has been financing. But they’ve had some encouraging success on that score, too. For example, they applied for funding from ArtPlace, which is a collaboration of national foundations, banks, and the National Endowment for the Arts, aiming to promote public interest in the arts, encourage “creative place-making,” and support efforts to transform communities that are making strategic investments in the arts.

    When French and McKinlay applied for an ArtPlace grant a couple years ago, theirs was one of approximately 2,200 initial applications, out of which 200 were invited to make final applications. Only 47 grants ultimately were awarded – one of those (for $250,000) to the Tides Institute. “We’re the only institution in Maine ever to get money from them,” French told me, attributing that success to the attractiveness of the idea behind one of the Tides Institute’s missions, “to build connectedness and engage people in the community, including across the border in Canada.”

    New StudioWorks building, under reconstruction.

    The ArtPlace grant helped subsidize the restoration of another old (1887), rundown building nearby that French and McKinlay acquired. This second space, now renovated, houses their StudioWorks facility, providing studio space, with print-making equipment, a letterpress, and assorted digital resources. The building also serves as home to an artist-in-residence program that has grown rapidly in popularity, receiving 70 to 80 applications for the four sequential residencies available this past summer. The program is attracting the attention of artists, in part because it provides recipients with a stipend, along with free housing in an attractive space a block away. 

    Artist Christine Wong Yap, at work in new StudioWorks space.

    The artist-in-residency program is dear to McKinlay and French because it helps meet their purpose of engaging the community. They want people to see artists at work in a studio, and they ask the artists to do work that people can participate in. Similarly, they run an educational program that, in addition to bringing school kids into the museum on field trips, also sends artists into the local schools to talk to kids about what artists do and to show some work. “We want kids to know that becoming an artist is one potential path ahead,” said McKinlay.

    In the spirit of trying to strengthen the bonds of community, another important venture of the Tides Institute is its New Year’s Eve Celebration, which started about six years ago. French told me, “We commissioned an artist to create an 8-foot sardine that gets lowered from the roof of the museum at midnight, like the crystal ball at Times Square. It’s a very popular event. Hundreds of people come out for it.”

    New Year's Eve celebration, 2012, in square in front of TIMA's main building in Eastport

    Looking back on what they’ve accomplished, French and McKinlay are proud of seeing their two buildings restored and happy to see how their efforts are contributing to the growing vitality of this small city. They’re gratified, too, French said, at how the Tides Institute & Art Museum has “encouraged cooperation and exchange among communities here on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.”

    Brochure created by TIMA and community partners. 

    Not only would they do it all again, despite the formidable challenges they’ve faced, but they’d offer encouragement to others considering starting new ventures in the arts. As McKinlay put it. “I’d say to them, You can do it. You can be creative. You can be innovative. Yes, it’s true: you have to be a little crazy. And you have to be willing to make some sacrifices and take some risks. But there’s a great opportunity to make a difference, especially in small towns.”

    French and McKinlay are the first to say that they didn’t do all this on their own. “This is a tight community. People here work together,” McKinlay told me. “But I think it’s true everywhere that people will try to be helpful when they see something coming along that promises to be beneficial to the whole community. That’s certainly what we've found. So, my message to people would be: Take that gamble.” 


    [All photos provided by the Tides Institute and Museum of Art.]


    John Tierney.     Email: TierneyJT at gmail.com      Twitter: @_JohnTierney_

  • More on This Strange Chinese ADIZ: 'Sovereign Is as Sovereign Does'

    Which explanation is less worrisome: calculated expansion, or miscalculated blunder?

    Overlapping areas of Chinese and Japanese airspace claims, from China Military Review. The legend says that the red line shows the new Chinese ADIZ area, and the black line shows Japan's. The gray is the overlap.

    Following yesterday's item on the newly expanded Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, that China has announced in the East China Sea, these links and updates. Also, please see the discussion from our partners at ChinaFile

    1) From The Interpreter, the excellent blog of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, an overview by Rory Medcalf of the things to worry about, and not, in the ADIZ announcement. (By the way, you pronounce this A-dizz, with a long A, not spelled out as A-D-I-Z.) Summary of what's worrisome:

    • It is a unilateral step, announced suddenly and apparently without consultation with two countries whose civilian and military aircraft will be most affected, the US and Japan.
    • It includes a contested maritime area, notably the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and thus can be seen as a deliberate effort to change the status quo, even a provocation.
    • Its ‘rules’ demanding that aircraft identify themselves and obey Chinese direction on flight paths seem to apply to all aircraft in the zone and not only aircraft en route to China...
    • It looks like a pretext for one of two undesirable security outcomes. If foreign aircraft now regularly obey the new Chinese rules, we will see precedents set for the unilateral expansion of Chinese authority over contested maritime territory. Alternately, if foreign aircraft contest or ignore the Chinese zone and a dangerous or deadly incident occurs (such as a collision or a forceful encounter), then China will have prepared the way to absolve itself of legal or moral blame, making it easier to use the incident as a justification to escalate the crisis if China so chooses.

    The third point on Medcalf's list is one I should have highlighted more clearly yesterday. The borders of the United States are also ringed by ADIZs. But here the ADIZ rules -- mainly, a requirement for a pre-filed flight plan showing who you are and where you're going -- apply only to planes headed to destinations in the United States. They don't affect planes passing through en route to somewhere else, say from Canada to the Caribbean. The new Chinese claim is that even planes merely passing through must comply with their ADIZ requirements.

    Also see Andrew Erickson, mentioned previously as a go-to source. If you'd like to see an outright "sky is falling!" reaction to the events, check out Politico.

    2) "Sovereign is as sovereign does." From a reader:

    Your article about China's ADIZ didn't explicitly recognize a major component of the move. Namely, in international law a major way by which states acquire sovereignty over an area is by actually exercising sovereignty (i.e. administering) over it for a "reasonable" period of time and especially having other states acquiesce to its administration. As one famous court opinion put it:

    "The modern international law of the acquisition (or attribution) of territory generally requires that there be: an intentional display of power and authority over the territory, by the exercise of jurisdiction and state functions, on a continuous and peaceful basis."

    Even if it has little real practical effect for airliners, by having them identify themselves to China Beijing will be exercising sovereignty over the area and can claim that others are acquiescing to its claims of sovereignty. This is why the U.S. and Japan immediately announced they wouldn't comply with China's demands and the U.S. is openly defying the order already.

    Of course Japan has anADIZ over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands but at the very least by establishing its own ADIZ (and patrolling the waters below) China is chipping away at Japan's int'l legal claim of sovereignty. This is also why China has made a point of increasing its patrols in the South China Sea and is acquiring the necessary capabilities to constantly patrol the skies over the South China Sea.

    3) A Chinese Caribbean. A reader who has worked in politics:

    Re: "Why are the Chinese doing this?"

    Obviously as you point out it's opaque and we can only speculate to Zhongnanhai's [rough equivalent of the White House] motivations but I think a helpful way to think about is their view/ambition for the East China Sea is that it is/should be a Chinese Caribbean.

    Think about the US role there in the late 19th century - the Venezuela thing/ Roosevelt Corollary/ getting the British out).  Which is the tack I would take if I were sitting in Beijing.

    4) "A generally more emboldened China." A reader with a lot of experience in the defense world:

    I would draw your attention to the Defense Ministry spokesman’s response to the question regarding if China intended to set up ADIZ’s in other areas (e.g., the South China Seas):  “China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”

    I believe that the central question that this new provocation raises is what accounts for it?  Of course, longstanding tension over the Daioyu/Senkaku issue has been rekindled and that offers a proximate explanation; the arrival of Abe into office in Japan, another. 

    But what I fear we may be seeing is a generally more emboldened China. There is a lengthening bread crumb trail of recent PRC activity that leads me to this observation (not yet a firm conclusion). 

    I’m not referencing the (still) ongoing detentions and boardings that occur with regularity over the Spratleys, the Paracels, and Scarborough Shoals, but to chest-thumping behavior such as the recent Chinese news releases covering the capability of the PLAN’s SSBNs to lay waste to much of the western United States with 20 nuclear weapons. Yes, it did come to us via the Global Times, and yes, I’m well aware that even Beijing is rapidly losing its ability to control much of what comes out of China’s increasingly pluralistic press. That said, Beijing most certainly has proven itself capable of fully controlling what is being uttered in public about its nuclear weapons capabilities.

    To be clear, the concern is not on the substance – or even veracity in this latter case of the story – the Xia class SSBNs with their JL-1 SLBMs remain the Chinese maritime equivalent of the Edsel, while the JIN-class (094) SSBNs (with the JL-2 SLBMs) are not yet on operational patrol.  So, again, why the chest thumping?  

    Well, here’s to hoping that we aren’t witnessing the emergence of a new hawkish China.

    Yes, I agree with that hope. To me, the evidence in recent years has been equivocal, even random -- a lurch forward here, a retreat there. A few days in, the ADIZ expansion appears to have been either a coldly calculated expansionary step, or a wildly miscalculated gamble. Neither is a great option from the rest of the world's perspective, but the blunder option is less worrisome.  

  • How to Think About the Chinese Air-Defense News

    The latest escalation in the East China Sea marks a worsening of relations between the world's second and third largest economies, and puts the U.S. in a lose-lose predicament.

    Chinese map of its new Air Defense Identification Zone, from Xinhua.

    This is a strange development—China's establishment over the weekend of an ADIZ, or Air Defense Identification Zone, in an expanded area of the East China Sea, eliciting alarmed reactions from Japan, the United States (which today sent two B-52s through the zone), South Korea, and other countries in the region. A few points to bear in mind as you follow the story:

    1) What is an ADIZ, anyway? Many news stories have presented the ADIZ as if it were comparable to a no-fly zone, or an extension of territorial sovereignty. It's not quite that. All four words in its full title are important, including the least obvious third one: Air Defense Identification Zone. The idea is to create an area where the relevant authorities have a right to know who is flying, and where they are going. It doesn't necessarily mean that flights are going to be challenged or interfered with.

    For reference, here is the way the ADIZs around the continental United States look:

    In practice the U.S. zones mean that aircraft entering ADIZ space—most of the time, those bound for U.S. cities from other countries—must have filed flight plans and been cleared along their routes by Air Traffic Control. Virtually all of the world's airline flights operate on filed-and-cleared flight plans anyway, so the ADIZ makes no practical difference in airline operations. (The Chinese have said the same will apply in their new zone.) You can get extremely detailed info from the pertinent FAA regulations. They include this definition:

    Air defense identification zone [ADIZ] means an area of airspace over land or water in which the ready identification, location, and control of civil aircraft is required in the interest of national security.

    "Control" in this sense means subject to the directions of an Air Traffic Controller—"turn right, heading 270"—rather than something more forceful.

    So this move is aggressive and expansionist, in asserting a Chinese government right to know who is traveling in its (enlarged) vicinity. But some stories have suggested that it would lead to an immediate struggle or challenge over the right to fly, which it (probably) will not.

    2) Why are the Chinese doing this? As a general proposition, this is of course one more sign of worsening relations between China and Japan, focused in this case on the tiny islands both countries claim to control. As for the immediate reasons for this move, no one outside the central leadership can say with any certainty, and perhaps not even anyone there.

    The lines of authority and communication between civilian and military officials in China are murky in the best of circumstances. (Remember, the People's Liberation Army technically is commanded by the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese state.) The concept of a civilian commander-in-chief is not built into China's governing structure. Most people think that newish president Xi Jinping enjoys more support from the military than his predecessor—which most outsiders consider to be a good thing, since it reduces the chance of the military setting policy or creating new realities on its own.*

    The ADIZ move is is a big enough step that Xi Jinping himself would presumably have been aware of it, and again-presumably would have thought it a worthwhile demonstration of Chinese "strength" and refusal to be pushed around. But for now that is guesswork rather than knowledge. 

    3) Is this likely to do China any good? The puzzling nature of Chinese foreign policy, especially its generally self-defeating "soft power" aspects, is a subject too vast for our purposes right now. In brief: the very steps that, from an internal Chinese-government perspective, are intended to make it seem confident, powerful, and attractive often have exactly the opposite effect on audiences outside China.

    One famous illustration followed the world financial crisis of 2008. The Chinese economy recovered much more quickly than others; the U.S. looked like a house of cards; and the Chinese military made a number of expansionist-seeming moves in the South China Sea that quickly got the attention of neighboring countries. The result of this "over-reach" episode, as it is described now even in China, was to bring Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries into closer alignment with the U.S. than they had thought necessary before. By acting super-tough, the Chinese military made its real situation weaker.

    This ADIZ case may become the next famous example. Whether it seems, either now or later, worthwhile from the Chinese leadership's perspective I have no idea. But at least in the short term, it appears to have alarmed the South Koreans, with whom Chinese relations had been steadily warming, plus introducing new friction into China's most important relationship, which is with the United States. 

    Which leads us to ... 

    4) So what about the U.S. reaction, including the bombers? The worsening Japan-China struggles are, for the United States, the opposite of the cynical view of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Back then, as the wisecrack held, the U.S. wished both sides could lose. This time, the U.S. would prefer that both sides win—or, more precisely, that they not fight. A struggle between the two, especially over the contested tiny islands, puts the U.S. in a lose-lose predicament. Public mood and government policy in each country is increasingly hostile to the other—but we're deeply connected to both of them, plus we have a treaty obligation to defend Japan against attack. We want this fight to go away, without our being forced to take a side.

    Why risk getting involved, plus angering the Chinese, by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ? I think the Pentagon's initial explanation is the right one—on the merits, and as a matter of public diplomacy. The United States is not taking sides in this Japan-China island dispute, but it is against either side unilaterally changing the status quo. Also, in continuing "routine training flights"—which is how the B-52 mission was described—it is underscoring the U.S. commitment to existing rules on access to international air space. It was mildly risky to send that flight, but it would have been riskier not to react at all.

    5) How Can You Learn More. This will be all over the news, but a go-to site is that of Andrew Erickson, a defense expert who is fluent in Chinese and is providing a steady flow of documents and analyses from Chinese sources.

    And then there are our friends at NMA in Taiwan. Of course they're critical of the P.R.C., but ... well, see for yourself.

    * The most closely studied example of "creating new realities" was the Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, which left debris in the path of other satellites and was roundly criticized worldwide. Even now people debate who exactly gave the go-ahead for this move: someone inside the PLA, or the civilian leadership of then-president Hu Jintao.

  • 'Tis the L.L.Bean Season for Pinball Wizards and Wicked Good Wieners

    By Deborah Fallows

    By Deborah Fallows

    I always associate the word “wicked” with the Maine icon L.L.Bean. For good reason: do you know that if you search on the L.L.Bean website for “wicked” that you will get 40 returns? A lot of them describe slippers that are “wicked good,” or long underwear and throws that are “wicked warm” and “wicked plush,” and one “wicked tough” pair of chaps. Wicked is a great marketing word.

    And of course there is Boston's “wicked,” as captured in the famous “My boy is wicked smart” scene with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.  It comes at the end of this clip. But let's stay in Maine for a minute.

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    The L.L.Bean use of wicked isn’t the usual “evil” or even the “mischievous” wicked. It is a different wicked, which I figured must be a regionalism, and which the newly-completed Dictionary of American Regional English confirms is a New Englandism, mostly Maine and Massachusetts.  I never imagined that people used the L.L.Bean wicked colloquially, or without intentional affectation.

    Wrong! I wasn’t in Eastport, Maine, for a day before I heard it.  Something like, “The winters here can be wicked cold!”  At first, I wondered if this wicked was perhaps deliberately delivered for my benefit as an outsider, or “person from away” as I would certainly be called.  By the third time I heard it, I knew it was standard speech.  The people of Eastport told me it means “very,” a very, very intense “very”.

    I decided to do a little research. I hauled out 5 of my dictionaries, all 11,580 pages and 42.5 pounds of them. The SHORTER Oxford English Dictionary weighs over 9 pounds itself and is 2515 pages long. I have both the 4th and 5th editions of The American Heritage Dictionary (full disclosure: my husband, Jim, is on the usage panel for this dictionary). Then there is the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and a Roget’s Thesaurus, thrown in for good measure.

    So what about wicked? The etymology looks pretty straightforward. They all say wicked comes from Old English (about the 5th – late 11th centuries) “wicca,” meaning wizard and probably also the feminine form “wicce,” meaning witch. OK, we start with wizards and witches. By Middle English (about the 12th – 15th centuries), it had taken the form wikke or wikked, and had a few more spellings like wicke and wicked.  Spelling didn’t count for much back then.  It was used as an adjective, meaning “bad,” by the 13th century.

    By a few centuries later, the number of meanings grew (a common shift) to include “mischievous” or “playfully malicious,” as in “such a wicked kitten.”

    By today we’ve got wicked meaning several different shades of bad, and also meaning mischievous.

    And we have added two versions of wicked as slang. There is wicked meaning something like “wonderful, great, masterful, with an edgy skillful craftiness,”  as in “He blows a wicked trumpet,” or  “He throws a wicked curveball.” And the late 20th century arrival, where wicked would mean “good,” or the opposite of its most popular meaning “bad” (which is another common shift) as in “That is a wicked song.” Four wickeds, all adjectives.

    There are wicked good wieners from Maine to Nevada.  From TheHotDogTruck.com

    Now, the word has evolved to include the L.L.Bean “wicked warm” meaning – now an adverb, and now meaning “very,” a definition that has made it into some of the noble dictionaries. 

    Another evolution, I think, is that the “very” meaning of wicked is now also used in adjective form.  As in “I’ve got a wicked hunger,” which, I think,  means “very intense” rather than just a version of “bad.” This isn’t even in Wiktionary yet, and I don’t have a native-speaker sense of it nailed down, so I’ll tread lightly on that. Anyone?

    The real gourmands have a little to say about the pronunciation of wicked. A displaced Mainer explains the subtle pronunciation:

    The pronunciation of the word wicked is key to not being seen as a Maniac wannabe. The emphasis needs to be on the first syllable, and an almost imperceptible pause before the second syllable is usually used for emphasis. It sounds like "Wick'-id" This is especially important is describing things dear to a real Maniac's heart. A trout that puts up a wicked good fight before you net it needs good emphasis on the wick syllable. A wicked good pass by the high school quarterback to get a key first down against the arch rival school needs to be done slowly for emphasis.

    And from the mouths of the experts (via the kpredd13 YouTube channel):



    Bringing this full circle, I have to wonder: could we mash up the wizards, add a pinball, substitute the wicked-meaning-masterful for “mean”, and end up with a more etymologically interesting version of Pinball Wizard from the rock opera Tommy?  

    To contact the author, write DebFallows at gmail.com.

  • Harry Reid, Constitutionalist

    "I think that 60 votes could end America's ability to govern itself."

    George Barrus

    Having inveighed nonstop these past six years about increasing abuse of the filibuster, am I glad that Senator Harry Reid has finally begun to say "Enough"?


    Rather, Yes!

    More nuanced reaction after I get back to the U.S. on Friday evening. But the main point is this:

    Whichever party controls the government has to be able to govern. Our checks-and-balances system, crafted in the demographic and political realities of 18th-century, 13-state, slave/free, Eastern Seaboard America, and in many ways showing its age, did not ever contemplate a permanent blocking minority in the Senate as one of the regular "checks." You can look it up. Minority protection is an important part of our overall constitutional balance, but not in proceedings of the Senate. Outside a named class of special circumstances—impeachment, treaties, veto overrides, etc.—the Senate, whose all-states-equal formula already over-represents regional minorities, was intended to run as a majority-rule operation.

    It's nearing time to board a long flight, so let me turn the stage over to someone with more practical experience in the realities of governing than most other Americans. This is Jerry Brown, whom I profiled earlier this year and who, in a riff that was not part of my article, said this about the distortion of the Senate. He told me this when I interviewed him in Oakland this spring:

    We can't have a country based on the 60-vote standard. This is serious.

    We've never had to have 60 votes for appointments or day-to day-decisions. Really, you can't govern that way. That's a radical change. 

    How can you govern? Does England have 60? [JF note: Obviously a rhetorical question. His point is that the U.S. has the drawbacks of parliamentary democracy, including political polarization -- without the benefits, namely the ability to get things done.] I think that 60 votes could end America's ability to govern itself. We have to get rid of it. 

    That 60 votes is bad.

    And a step against it is good.

  • Landing at the Wrong Airport: Sigh

    America is covered with small airfields. Usually that's a plus. But not always.

    Many people have sent me links about the unfortunate news of a giant cargo airplane, a modified 747 known as a "Dreamlifter," landing at a smaller airport in Kansas rather than at its intended destination, McConnell Air Force Base. 

    How could this happen? Of course it shouldn't happen -- airports have distinct GPS locations and "airport identifiers," all but the smallest ones have instrument-approach frequencies that you dial in (even in good weather) to be sure you're lined up with the right runways, you're supposed to be constantly looking for landmarks, and so on. But if it were to happen, you could sort of understand in a case like this, where there are three airports with similar orientation lined up one after another on the Kansas plain. Via Google Earth, here is how it might look if, like this plane, you were headed in from the north:

    The airport at the top of this view is McConnell Air Force Base, where the plane thought it was headed. The one in the middle Beech airport, whose runway is laid out in the same direction. At the bottom is Jabara airport, also with a similar layout, where the plane actually touched down -- and, fortunately, managed to take off again the next day for the minutes-long flight to McConnell.

    For previous cases of adjoining, similar-looking airports leading pilots astray, see accounts from South Dakota and from Florida

    Main reason to mention the story, apart from the interesting videos in some of those older, linked posts? The air-traffic control tape of the mistaken landing and its aftermath truly is fascinating. We all know about the pilot sangfroid that captured in the beginning of The Right Stuff. "You may feel a tiny bit of bumpiness here," the Yeager/Tom Cruise-accent-aspirant pilot might say as the plane is tossed up and down through a thunderstorm. Bear that in mind as you hear flight crew and controllers sounding nonchalant about what they all recognize, but are not mentioning, as a big embarrassment.

    In case you were wondering, here is how the three airports in question look on an FAA "VFR Sectional" chart. Jabara (actual landing site) at the top, Beech in the middle, McConnell (intended destination) at the bottom.

    To keep things in perspective: no one was hurt, the plane managed to take off again, and the only thing damaged was pride. May all aviation misjudgments have effects this benign. 

    On the airport theme, something new has come to PEK, the Beijing International Airport where I sit at the moment, since my last visit here. There's free wifi: Great! But to get your code, you have to put your passport into a scanning machine that reads and records your coordinates before issuing you a wifi code. I guess there are still tricks for the NSA to learn.

  • We Report, the World Decides: Follow-Ups on the News

    Tomorrow's news, yesterday.

    1) Chinese airspace. In the last few hours of my current visit to Beijing, news arrives that the People's Liberation Army is going to open up more of China's airspace to commercial travel! And I hear from a friend that a recent airline trip between Shanghai and Beijing, routinely very late (because of routine military controls on air-traffic routes), took off on time and landed early.

    Everyone I know has sent me links to these updates, because a big theme of my book China Airborne was that the struggle over control of China's skies was an unusually revealing proxy for the larger struggle between the security-state interests in China, and the business- modernization interests. The news of this past week in China has been dominated by tea-leaf-reading interpretations of the "Third Plenum," which seem to end with a commitment to ongoing economic (though not so much political) reform. The airspace decision, assuming it comes to pass, would be the realization of something that's been "discussed" and "expected" for many years. So, count this as one modest but tangible step in the reform direction.

    2) The Foxconn model. Another big question for China, again as I discussed in the same book, is whether its future growth prospects amount to simply more of its current subcontractor-and-infrastructure model. Or whether, on the contrary, China will be able to take steps toward a different, higher-value, "rich country" economic system. The Foxconn company, which I've written about extensively, is another bellwether for this process. Kathleen McLaughlin has an interesting story about its prospects in inland China here.  

    3) California surplus. This spring I wrote about Jerry Brown's second incarnation as governor of my home state of California, and his success in balancing the budget. One big subject of dispute was whether his effort in pushing passage of Proposition 30 -- a seven-year surtax on incomes of wealthy Californians -- would be its own undoing, in driving the richest people out of the state.

    I quoted people who were skeptical of that claim. Eg:

    "The idea that people are really going to move their companies to Nevada because of taxes is nonsense," Paul Saffo, a longtime technology analyst based in Northern California, told me. "Silicon Valley has always been a high-cost place to operate and, like the state, has always been in danger of drowning in the products of its own success."

    The latest results seem to confirm that view. California, which under Arnold Schwarzenegger was many tens of billions of dollars in deficit, now has a $2.4 billion budget surplus:

    Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor said Prop. 30, which increased sales taxes through 2016 and personal income taxes on the wealthy through 2018, would not have the "fiscal cliff" effect [driving rich people out of the state] that some feared.

    We will take our good political news where we can find it, on whatever continent.

  • Career-Oriented Education vs. the Liberal Arts

    Readers weigh in with compelling opinions on Maine Maritime Academy, liberal-arts colleges, and big questions.   By John Tierney

    By John Tierney

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    Last week, as part of the American Futures series here, I wrote two pieces about Maine Maritime Academy (MMA). The second post recounted a Twitter exchange I had with a dean of students from a liberal-arts college, in which this person seemed (to me) to be arrogantly dismissive about the kind of career-oriented education provided at places like MMA, and extravagantly self-satisfied and sanguine about the kind of education that liberal-arts colleges provide. She tweeted: “Discovery, empathy, adaptability is goal of broad-based education, prepares students for life, learning & jobs known & unknown.”

    Source: New York Public Library

    I noted that this comment made my blood boil. ("I resented – on behalf of Maine Maritime Academy and its students and faculty, past and present – the smug, arrogant condescension of her reply.") And I invited readers to weigh in with their views on the question I was left with: "I wonder what makes some people at liberal-arts colleges so dismissive of, and condescending toward, institutions that actually train people for careers.” I noted the reply of a friend, a professor at another liberal-arts college, who wrote of the aversion many of his colleagues have to any education that smacks of providing "skills." Apparently, that would be too déclassé.

    I received scads of emails, many of them quite lengthy. When I copied the most interesting of them into a Word document, it totaled 46 pages. I wish I could simply copy all of them into this space for you to read. Alas, the overlords here would resist that. So, I'll offer samples from a bulging mailbag.  (Responders, all of you: many thanks.)

    Many readers were eager to make the point that an education at maritime academies is incredibly broadening, anything but narrow, and leads to experiences unlike anything most liberal-arts grads will ever get.  Here, for example, is a reply from a 1991 graduate of MMA, whose father also is a graduate from the class of 1966 there. He used the dean's comment to organize his reply:

    I've spent valuable time in more countries than I can count and have immersed myself in their cultures. I can honestly say it has been a direct influence on the man I have become. 

    Discovery?.... Yup. Pyramids of Giza, Pompeii, St. Petersburg, Chichen Itza Pyramid, Singapore, Somalia, Djibouti, Cape Town, Mombasa, Iraq, Kuwait, Dubai, Alexandria, Egypt, Palma De Mallorca, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Solomon Island/Gilbert Islands and Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, Guam, Saipan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vancouver, Montreal, Germany, Belgium, England, France, Canary Islands, circumnavigations of the globe, and onboard Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute vessels for the filming of several National Geographic televised documentaries.

    Adaptability?  Yup.  Find yourself in a foreign country, left to your own devices, and adaptability becomes 2nd nature with all due haste. Find yourself in a war zone or trying to clear customs in a country hostile to the USA, and you find yourself able to make quick decisions that carry real consequences without hesitation.

    Empathy?  Yup.  Seen more famine and 3rd-world living conditions than I'd like to remember. People in the USA who complain they "don't have," have no idea .....

    These opportunities are there for any student of Maine Maritime Academy who enrolls in the USCG license program. That license is a ticket to the world, the likes of which cannot be found in a liberal-arts college. Nothing prepares you for life more than living it and seeing the wonders of the world firsthand.

    A similar reply (I received many like this) from someone who went to another of our seven maritime academies in the United States:

    You rightfully point out that there are liberal-arts requirements including history, foreign language, and humanities courses that need to be fulfilled to get the BS degree. I would also point out that part of the maritime-academy experience is time out at sea, with visits to foreign ports. As an example, at USMMA [the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy], my alma mater, we went out to sea for a full year on regular merchant vessels. Before I graduated, I visited 25 countries on 5 continents while sailing on 4 different vessels. What you learn about life, sailing on a ship for a year with a bunch of “seasoned” shipmates, is much different from the sheltered, study-abroad nonsense some college students opt for these days. I have to admit, the local museum was not always the first stop when going ashore, but I got a good sense of what a country and its people were like.

    And from a 2006 MMA grad who is now "aboard a small ship, floating in the Atlantic":

    I graduated with an engineering degree and I have never regretted my decision to attend MMA. There is proof in the pudding that "focused" colleges prepare their students for success. At a time when college grads are having a hard time getting jobs out of school and paying back their student loans, more high school graduates should be looking harder at MMA-type schools. I had a job making about $80,000/year within one month of graduating and have been making over six figures since I was 24 years old. At least for the merchant-mariner grads, this is standard. I am not just one of the lucky few. I have no idea why someone would pay a high tuition to get a "general education."

    Echoing that same sentiment about the kind of preparation one can get at MMA for a lucrative career, a 2004 graduate with a degree in Marine Engineering Operations, wrote:

    I'm currently working six months out of the year for an employer who pays me obscene amounts of money. The remainder of the year, I fish and ski in Montana. I could leave this employer at any time and get hired immediately from numerous competitors, probably for more money.

    The reputation of MMA is all I've ever needed to get a job. Tell Human Resources you're from MMA and you've already got your foot in the door. I've had employers hire classmates on the spot simply because we attended this little college. It's incredible the weight this institution carries in numerous industries.  

    An MMA graduate, whose son is now a senior there, wrote this, obviously annoyed by the college dean's Tweet suggesting the presumably superior adaptability of liberal-arts grads:

    I graduated from MMA in 1986 as an engineer. I am now the owner of a printing and mailing company employing over 30 people. Pretty adaptable!

    A roommate of mine graduated in 1986 as a Deck Officer. He went on to be a Captain on a ship and is now an elder-law attorney. Pretty adaptable!

    My brother’s roommate graduated in 1985 as an engineer and is now a plastic surgeon. Pretty adaptable!

    Another classmate of my brothers is an eye doctor. Pretty adaptable!

    Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, a former graduate went on to become the Governor of the State.

    I know I’m only a graduate of MMA but -- geesh! --  all that sounds like adaptability at its finest to me!

    Picking up a slightly different theme, a very prominent professor of microbiology from a major-league research university, someone who spent a couple of months on a sabbatical at MMA in part because of its high-quality library (and, he admits, its "magnificent view") sent this comment:

    I have always been impressed with how grounded the students at MMA are that I have met.  They have special "competencies," like being able to fix things which would be a mystery to 99% of the students on [my own] campus.

    Someone close to me, who graduated with a music degree from a small liberal-arts college (let's not say he's one of my sons, but . . . ), wrote this to me after seeing my second piece on MMA:

    When I tried to do a music-business independent study at [the liberal-arts college he attended], the dean turned down my proposal because it would be teaching "practical skills," which, apparently, is something they don't allow at the school. What the [hell] is that all about?! And they wonder why [that college's] graduates don't earn enough money to donate to the college?! Maybe they'd have more than a pitiful endowment if they taught students some practical skills so that their graduates could earn some money and be able to give back to the college! But Glenn [a professor in the music department there] and I did the independent study anyway. We just had to frame it as "history of the music business." Trickery, but it worked. I loved that place and it was the best college for me, but, man, that side of liberal-arts education is just so closed-minded. [Well said, young man. Your Dad approves!]

    That liberal-arts-college dean is clearly just an elitist who's insecure about her value in the world. 

    Another person who is not an MMA grad, or affiliated with it in any way, had this to say: 

    I have worked over the years with a number of their [MMA] graduates. I have found them uniformly excellent to work with -- competent, responsible, and genuinely nice folks. I work for an electric utility, and work with, work for, and have had people working for me, from a range of schools and backgrounds, including basically all of the Ivies. MMA graduates are at least as good, and in most cases I would prefer them to, people from any of the "name" schools. . . .

    I had a conversation with a friend who is an English professor at the local university. She was explaining that she did not understand how anyone in society could claim to be educated without having read, at least, all of Shakespeare. I asked how anyone could claim to be educated without understanding how a light bulb works.

    Yes, I agree. An educated individual needs to have a background in the liberal arts. As you pointed out, MMA graduates (and all university graduates in engineering, math or the sciences of which I am aware) have some requirements that give them exposure to this. Conversely, how can a liberal-arts graduate claim be be educated without some basic understanding of and appreciation of, chemistry, physics, biology, and math (especially statistics)?  How can you apply critical-thinking skills to the issues facing today's society (global warming, modern-day medical costs etc.) without having a background to even understand the issues? . . .

    Maybe the inchoate issue is how do we define an educated individual in today's society?  That might well be a discussion worth pursuing.

    Some respondents offered diagnoses as to why people at liberal-arts colleges seem to feel superior to, and dismissive toward, institutions that are more career-oriented. (I've highlighted the diagnoses in the several following replies.) One person, often quoted by name on this blog, wrote:

    I am not one to knock a liberal education, but one must recognize that when liberal-arts colleges look down on every other form of education as “vocational,” the anxiety arises from concerns about money. The big money generators are STEM courses [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] which receive government grants and lots of full-tuition foreign students. By contrast, the humanities are being down-scoped in a tight-budget environment, with many colleges reducing their foreign language courses, etc. The resultant attitude is that of the shabby genteel who maintain their dignity by asserting their social superiority over the parvenu.   

    And this:

    Your post . . . got me thinking about the question you asked: "I wonder what makes some people at liberal-arts colleges so dismissive of, and condescending toward, institutions that actually train people for careers."

    I think the answer might simply be defensiveness: those deans are like an emperor with no clothes. Private liberal-arts schools, like the one I went to, justify extremely high tuition by claiming that they are "teaching students to think." But MMA proves that you can learn the arts and sciences and also a vocation. They're not mutually exclusive! My college had an almost phobic aversion to "pre-professional" study while I was there, as if it would sully some Platonic ideal of a pure learning experience. But if one of the goals of college is to learn about the world, then hands-on work experience is surely as valuable as any academic course. MMA shows that there is plenty of time in four years for both.

    A woman who is herself a graduate of a master's-degree program at a small liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania and says her son, a whiz at science and math, seems headed not toward a liberal-arts college but toward "a technical institute to specialize in programmable logic circuits, or possibly computer engineering, or maybe electrical engineering," wrote this:

    He isn’t certain yet which type of school or which major, and as I help him investigate his options, I have had to face my own prejudices against vocational education.

    The biggest question this has raised for me goes beyond the school question. My question is this: Why is a vocation one prepares for at a liberal-arts college or at a university considered more valuable than a vocation one prepares for at a vocational school, technical institute, or trade school? If a person is truly following his or her calling (because, after all, that is what a vocation should be), should we not honor that, regardless of the string of letters behind his or her name? That may be the deeper underlying question that liberal-arts schools need to ask themselves: Are we truly encouraging students to find a vocation, or are we just filling their minds with useless knowledge, knowledge that in some cases might actually backfire and teach them to hate certain disciplines? (Don’t ask my opinion of science after being forced to struggle through the required two courses in college!)

    I think the answer to your question about liberal-arts attitudes can be summed up in one word: Pride. Every person wants to be validated, to think that somehow they are better than someone else. Nobody wants to be the low man on the totem pole, so they scramble to find a way to elevate themselves over everyone, or at least someone. It’s the same answer as the answer to so many issues of injustice: Pride. 

    I have no idea if liberal-arts colleges or universities will ever admit the value of vocational education, but I do know this: I will not allow my pride to stand in the way of my son pursuing excellence in his calling, even if that means his foregoing the liberal-arts college and attending a technical institute or a trade school.  My bias against those types of educational institutes, and my silly thinking that somehow liberal-arts colleges were superior, has been forever shattered.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if more people could see the value in vocation?

    As if guided by that person's open-mindedness, other respondents were overt peace-makers, not eager to push for the supremacy of either career-oriented or liberal-arts education. A prominent professor of writing at MMA, noting that graduates from there had become surgeons, veterinarians, rear admirals, CEOs of large corporations, owners of successful businesses (and, yes, governor of Maine) wrote:

    College, ultimately, is all about the dynamics between students and teachers. Sparks fly at MMA and that's what keeps most of us here -- motivated, "hungry" students, and professors with diverse backgrounds who care deeply about their students and their futures. I'm certain many, many colleges throughout the world can say the same thing about their own institutions.  . . .

    Every college can boast wonderful grads who have achieved noteworthiness, but most people think MMA turns out engineers and captains who stay that way for life. Far from it! Their lives take magnificent twists and turns, and this college has been part of their preparations for those wonderful roller-coaster moments in their personal lives and their careers.

    In that vein, and last, but not least, the following response wins the ultimate peace-making award here, the Jimmy-Carter/Menachem-Begin/Anwar-Sadat Trophy for tolerance, open-mindedness, and charity toward all:

    Different strokes for different folks. Let's agree to support different kinds of postsecondary education: community colleges, technical/ agricultural/fine-arts colleges, and liberal-arts colleges. Let's try to insure a suitable place for all high school graduates who want to continue their education. May they all find occupations they like.

    I sincerely hope that Maine Maritime Academy thrives. And Connecticut College and Pomona College too.



    John Tierney.     Email: TierneyJT at gmail.com      Twitter: @_JohnTierney_

  • The Health-Care Mess: More on What Went Wrong, and Why

    "Trust me, we're not freaking out."

    Following this item about the political, technological, and cultural factors that led to the problems of the Obamacare launch, readers weigh in.

    1. The UK lesson: Government sites don't have to fail. An American-expat reader writes:

    With respect to your recent post featuring commentary about the ability of the government to create useful, functioning websites, I would like to suggest the importance of stressing that this is not necessarily a problem for other large, developed countries elsewhere in the world. 

    I have lived in the UK for more than six years, and although my sample size of experiences in both the US and the UK is small, I am frequently shocked at how much more useful UK government websites are than those I have encountered from the US federal government (as an expat, I now find myself needing to access US federal websites far more than I ever needed to as a resident citizen).

    It is interesting that you cite EFTPS as an effective website. I tend to agree with you that EFTPS works well, but it appears to be the only useful website within the US federal tax regime. In the UK on the other hand, the entire HMRC (the equivalent to the IRS) website is quite useful and works well even for individuals. The IRS website, as far as I can tell, only works at all for tax professionals. 

    I would not struggle to be able to suggest other contrasting examples, but for the sake of brevity I will not do so. However, I think this comparative failure of government in the US, relative to other developed nations, is yet another striking symptom of a liberal society that tends to view government more as a necessary evil rather than as a tool available, when employed properly, to assist individuals and improve society. 

    PS—In the name of balance, I will offer up the PubMed database as another important and well executed website maintained by the US federal government. 

    2. When competence really counts. A reader in the U.S. writes:

    If Obama had run his campaign the way he ran the Obamacare rollout he would have been crushed. The Obamacare rollout worked/is working about as well as Romney's "Orca".

    3. Oh calm down. A reader inside the industry writes:

    It’s a bit strange to see all the hyperventilation and bloviation about the ACA rollout.  I work for a health insurance carrier that is participating in the marketplaces and trust me … we’re not freaking out.  We’ve always expected initial enrollment to be slow … we don’t expect it to pick up till Dec-Jan, and there are 3 separate federal risk mitigation programs that will back-stop our losses if the risk pool in year 1 skews more towards the sick.

    This new transitional policy basically creates two choices:

    1.   Choice # 1 – insurance commissioners (IC) now have the discretion to allow health plans in their states to sell non-ACA compliant policies in the individual market to only those customers who are already on such policies.  These decisions will vary by state.  For e.g. in NY, pre-ACA individual market rules already included protections for pre-existing conditions etc. and so prices were high because only the sick were signing up.  Marketplace prices are lower in NY because the mandate allows insurers to price in the effect of the healthy joining the risk pool.  So in NY, most likely, the IC will not allow these non-ACA compliant policies to continue.  In TX, the reverse scenario will most likely happen.

    2.   Choice # 2 – if the IC in a state decides to allow insurers to sell non-ACA compliant policies, then insurers have to decide whether in fact they will continue to do so. 

    a.      Insurers may decide it’s too big of a hassle to reinstate canceled policies.

    b.      If some of the policies have not been cancelled yet, insurers may decide to renew them with price hikes or changes to benefits and coverage that the customer may not like and which could induce them to not renew the policy.

    c.       If insurers continue selling these policies to existing members who have them, they have to inform them in writing about their non-ACA compliant features e.g. exclusions for pre-existing conditions, gaps between the benefits covered and essential health benefits guaranteed in the marketplaces, etc.  Some customers may decide its worth paying extra for protections for pre-existing conditions, more expansive benefits, lower and capped out-of-pocket maximums, etc.

    d.      Insurers, it seems, have priced in the likelihood of moving a large portion of their individual market business to the marketplaces.  They may be loath to undermine this pricing strategy especially when they can get some extra premium from their currently healthy customer in the marketplaces (there are revenue goals to be met!)

    As one of your readers has noted, filing insurance products is extremely labor intensive.  Insurers made the decision to cancel these plans a long time ago…that train has left the station, and it’s really hard to see them reversing course.  Remember also, the individual business forms a small slice of most insurers’ book of business (employer and Medicare/Medicaid dominate), so it’s hard to see them expending valuable resources on this effort.  Additionally, most state insurance departments run pretty lean too, so it would be impossible for them to have the bandwidth to review and approve these products in time for 2014. 

    Bottom line, how much of the individual market risk pool is preserved by this policy or how much of the marketplace risk pool is undermined is far from clear and will be the eventual function of a combination of multiple decisions on the part of regulators, insurers, and customers, which are pretty hard to predict at this point.  In the end, the overall impact may be minimal.

    Generally, this transitional policy seems like a “save face” measure by the White House that will end up having potentially the same outcome as if the transitional policy was never announced. 

    4. Maybe it's all sandbagging:

    I read the editorial [claiming sabotage of the law] you linked in your post about the failures of the AHA website.  It shouldn't come as any surprise if this is true, as the Senate Republicans have been publicly sandbagging the administration for some time now.  How different is this from the situation in Egypt, where President Morsi was essentially sandbagged by the deep state and infrastructure that was installed by the previous dictators?

    5. Or maybe not:

    I worked in state government for around 20 years. I finally decided that I'd rather die than keep working there, so I quit. That was in July of 2005, and I haven't worked again (or died, yet, as far as I can tell).

    The fundamental problem must be the structure of healthcare.gov. It has to be typical.

    Government is command-driven, top-down, laden with politics and middle managers, and oriented toward keeping up appearances. As the IT director of one agency told all of us employees in a quarterly meeting, "Our number one priority is keeping up appearances." This is true. I was there. He said it.

    Software development is about intelligently and agilely blending technical expertise and creativity, and inventing whatever solution works. Solutions are created by defining success and working backward to find a route leading to that success.

    In government projects, everything is overridden by expressing power, by back-stabbing, and by saving face. After setting an irrational deadline....

    It is true that one woman can produce one baby in nine months. It is equally true that nine women can produce one baby in one month. Assuming 10 health plans per state for 50 states, and three shifts per day, that means the President needs 13,500 women sweating it out to meet his November deadline.

    6. The offensiveness of "I don't write code."

    I was a programmer, analyst, etc. for 45 years until I retired at the end of 2011, and the last several years of my career were spent to a large extent working out EDI [Electronic Data Interchange] communications between my employer and numerous vendors of our products (Amazon, Kohl's, WalMart, etc.), so I have somewhat an image of what is required behind the scenes. 

    I know that every single transmission with every single insurance company would require personal communication and intensive testing, of both successful and unsuccessful transactions, to be sure everything is working on both sides.  And even though EDI forms are predefined, each customer may use them a little differently or may require additional information, so it's not a one-size-fits-all situation.  What with all the communication and testing required, it could be done in a week with one customer or take several weeks with another, depending on communication response on the other end.  It's clear not enough time was allowed for all of this to take place with every single insurance company, each state agency, etc.

    But over and above that I am furious that Obama allowed this to be botched in the first place, and that now he is apparently "piling on" by announcing a fix that is unworkable (the extension of policies), apparently without running it past insurance companies first.

    I even took the quote below (from a TPM post) personally.  Obama is almost implying that the programmers working on the job were incompetent, and that if he were a coder, he would be the super-duper kind of coder that would be able to fix all this up in nothing flat.  It really drove home to me his apparent arrogance in a way that all the right-wing rants I get from relatives and friends could not.  It brings back the quote from early on when he said he would think of himself as a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, etc.

    "Now, we've had this problem on the website," he said after touring the Port of New Orleans. "I'm not happy about that. But we're working overtime to make sure that it gets fixed because right now, we've put in place a system, a marketplace, where people can get affordable health care plans.

    "I promise you, nobody has been more frustrated," he added. "I wanted to go in and fix it myself, but I don't write code."

    7. What's getting overlooked. From a reader in California:

    The sad thing in all this is so little mention of ACA killing off the lifetime $1M cap on benefits that is so common now. 

    My last boss's husband, a professor, average 60ish guy, not obese, daily walker at least, bent down to pet their dog, and something went so awry in his back that he faced paralysis, managed to dodge that, but I suspect a cane is permanent and they modified their bungalow to add a wheelchair ramp.  His tab went over $1M in about 3 weeks of the ultimate ~6 month ordeal.  Luckily the [place where he worked] had a better policy that did not have the $1M cap, or he'd have been f**ked.  So all these people wanting to keep their cheap policies are buying much less security than they think.

    And in many less consumer-friendly states, individual policies can be dropped by insurer in the event of a "shock claim" such as an AIDS pneumonia - they'll cover the pneumonia then drop the insured like a leper.  This is all mooted by the guaranteed issue nature of post-ACA policies, but individuals are badly informed and, as per usual, being stoked along by Fx news and spineless Dems.

  • Do You Speak Eastport?

    A town teaches itself to talk positive.   By Deborah Fallows

    By Deborah Fallows

    Let’s let the Mainers speak for themselves! I’ve tried and tried to describe what Maine-talk sounds like, but I can’t even get close. When I emailed an old friend who grew up in Bangor about the general term of agreement -- the “yup” word – I wrote to him “ah yep”, and he shot back “No, no, no. Ay-yuh.”

    OK. Uncle. I’ll never pass as a Mainer. But here, thanks to YouTube, is a bona fide Downeasterner, from Eastport no less, who claims he can teach you in one quick easy lesson how to speak like a Mainer:

    I heard all this and more during our recent visit to Eastport. And I also stumbled across a great example of an endeavor that linguists call “language planning.” Language planning can take lots of forms: it can be official, like decreeing Canada a bilingual country; or it can be accommodating, like printing voting ballots in multiple languages; or it can be stamping approval, like the dictionaries regularly do when they formally accept new words or new usage in a language.

    I would say that little Eastport, Maine, is engaged in some deliberate language planning of its own. Why? Just as Eastporters are looking to the power of the ocean tides to create energy for the world, they are looking to the power of language to create energy for the town. They are changing the public language of the town by talking positive. Here are some of the stories: 

    Crowd out DE- with RE- :  The Commons of Eastport is a place that could be described as a local artisan gallery plus events center, with also small boutique rental units.

    The Commons                            Courtesy of The Commons

    We rented one of the units during our recent stay in Eastport. The Commons, along with the Waco Diner (pronounced "wacko"; our daily breakfast), the Happy Crab (daily lunch), the Liberty Café (daily dinner) and Dastardly Dick’s (daily latte) are probably the 5 year-round centers of action along Eastport’s main street, Water Street. They are always full of people, who seem to punctuate their days by stopping in one or another of the places from time to time. We found that if we were looking for someone, we could just hang out in one spot or another, and that person would be likely to eventually drop by.

    WaCo Diner                                  Photo Source: Fallows

    The Women of The Commons, as the group of founders call themselves, are some of the cultural stake-setters of Eastport. They have built this place, and three among them are planning a second more ambitious project. The women have been at this a long time, about a dozen years now, building with conservative patience and care, and yet the enthusiasm of a startup.

    Linda Godfrey, who is one of the partners, told me how she and some other women noticed several years back – when Eastport was beginning to show its colors – that in reporting about the town, media seemed stuck in how they were referring to Eastport. 

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    She pointed to what they called the DE- words: “The most used de-words were words like: depressed, dependent, decline, despair, and were usually used in comments about economics, services, schools, population.” And continues,  “it just seemed the "de" words were ever-present -- even if the story itself was a positive one -- the last paragraph left a negative conclusion.”

    So, the group focused on a campaign to crowd out the DE- words with RE- words, words like rebound, rediscover, redesign, reverse, renew, re-energize, re-emerge. They encouraged reporters and politicians to think about using those words instead.

    Gradually, Godfrey reported, their campaign seems to have worked. As background for a new project, they recently harvested a few dozen Eastport stories written in the last few years, and not a single one included a final negative paragraph. 

    Friar Roads, between Eastport and Campobello                                      Image Source: Capt. Bob Peacock

    Not a bug but a feature: Several Eastport residents told me versions of a deliberate vocabulary shift, which also reflect this look toward the positive side. It is about Eastport’s next-door neighbor, Canada. You could draw a line down through the mile-wide channel called Friar Roads, with Eastport to the west and Campobello Island, in Canada, to the east. (See image above.) Canada is right there, an important partner to this area in trade, culture, recreation, you name it. I heard a number of Eastporters remark about how they refer to the dividing line: We don’t call it a border; we call it an opportunity.

    Just say YES: This is a teaser. I’m not going to reveal the plot line, which will appear in the next issue of The Atlantic (Subscribe!). But here is a little piece of the story: Chris Gardner, the director of the Port of Eastport, insisted the response to a rather wild-and-crazy project that had been proposed to the Port of Eastport should be positive. “Tell them YES!” said Gardner, “or somebody else will.” 

    Rephrase the question: Many Eastporters, whether from the arts, from industry, or from development offered some way of refocusing the issues in front of them. Whatever big challenge was coming along, they reported a turnabout in how to think about it. In sum, that they no longer asked “Can it be done?” but “Do we have the will to do it?”

    Marketing with introspective gusto: Marketing is always going to be positive, and Eastport is engaging in mental exercises to chop up the same old phrases and replace them with new ones. This means going beyond the usual “land of first sunrise” to include the first moonlight and the first stars.

    Photo Source: BayofFundy.com

    Or to remember that winter fog can be called, more evocatively, sea smoke. Or to offer a new reference to the close-by tidal whirlpool, the Old Sow, by calling it an Aqua Vortex.  Old Sow is too great a name to ever give up, but calling it an aqua vortex does lend a dignity to the largest tidal whirlpool in the western hemisphere.

    Half full: This pretty much sums up the linguistic spirit of Eastport. People are finding a better, more positive way to talk about their town – whether it is dumping the negative words,  finding new, spirited words, reframing questions and comments, or simply saying something out loud – YES!—when they might be thinking to themselves, “How are we going to do that?” They believe, I think, that the power of  words will bring them one step closer to realizing change.

    To contact the author, write DebFallows at gmail.com.


  • 'This Is Political Malpractice': Inside Views of the Health-Care Mess

    Why the president's latest promise may be as ill-founded as his original one

    On the policy screw-up now dominating the headlines, two notes from readers in a position to offer judgments. First, from a tech veteran named Connie Revell:

    I was recruited by the administration as an expert on government reform, and I had a terrible experience before leaving in 2010.

    What is interesting now is the perfect parallel between my experience then and the bomb of the ACA launch. Specifically, I was asked in late 2010 to assist in the introduction of a website, Performance.gov. This was a nightmare, especially for someone like me, long accustomed to working in teams.  I would edit content, only to have it second-guessed and overruled by unnamed others. But my boss got more and more agitated as the web site failed to go on line at the deadline date, and finally she screamed at me to go into the White House and stay until we got the okay to proceed. Meanwhile, chains of command and bureaucratic morass conspired to doom the web site even as my bosses fought ever harder to launch it. I ask you to check out the product of this angst-- Performance.gov-- as evidence of the inability of the federal government, even at the highest levels as currently constituted, to produce an effective web site. [JF note: For what it's worth, the Aviation Digital Data Service, a federal product, is indispensable and superb. For years I have also made my estimated tax payments etc through a very effective federal site, EFTPS.]

    Our web site was small potatoes compared to the crucially important ACA.gov. But it was a precursor of the disaster to follow. We had no ability to create the team dynamic needed to develop a modern web site; we were stuck in the ancient culture of the federal government, further hampered by the addition of contractors, and there was NO hope of getting our web site online. The ACA web site was complex times 1,000, and I cannot imagine a scenario in which this could have worked under any circumstances. If you throw in the active and constant efforts of the GOP to sabotage the effort, you end up with zero chance of success.

    I only wish the culture there had allowed top people to know that even launching a relatively innocuous web site like Performance.gov was impossible in that political culture. That might have been an early warning that fixes were required to launch the crucially important Obamacare site. But early warnings -- as when the CIA warned Bush officials of an imminent  Al Queda strike-- are often overlooked when most needed.

    Now, from a former health-insurance executive who is a Democrat:

    I am appalled that Obama’s advisers, in trying to get him out of the jam created by promising that the insurance companies would not kick anyone off a plan they liked, allowed him to go out there and promise to fix the problem by allowing the insurance companies to continue offering the old plans for another year.

    It’s repeating the exact flaw from the first pledge: in order for the promises to work, both rely on totally voluntary actions by the insurance companies!  No government official can force an insurer to offer any policy, ever.  There are some options governmental players can use to force insurers to comply with certain requirements once they do decide to issue a policy or a plan — but that presumes that the carriers have decided to offer a plan.  No one — President, governor or insurance commissioner — can force an insurer to offer a plan in the first instance.

    So Obama’s political advisers are telling him to fix a problem caused by implicitly promising that insurers will continue to offer certain plans by ... promising that insurers will resume offering certain plans.

    It is not unlikely that the insurers will behave that way — it is impossible.  Even if they wanted to do this, which they don’t  (who wants the headache and expense of offering a bunch of small little plans for a dwindling number of policyholders when the business is shifting to a new and much larger arena with much better economies of scale)  they actually physically, logistically and legally can’t do it. 

    Issuing a health care plan is incredibly difficult, cumbersome and complex. Launching a new plan requires at least a year of hard work and prep — designing the benefit, underwriting it, getting the actuarial work done, getting the state rate filing process accomplished including time for a rate appeal, making sure the right network of providers are in place ... on and on it goes.

    Bottom line is that the fix the president just promised can’t happen until January 2015, even if it was a good idea, which it is not. And even if the issuers wanted to keep offering the old plans, which they don’t — something we know to a 100% certainty because they dropped these grandfathered plans even though they already are currently free to continue to offer these plans.

    Obamacare allowed the issuers to continue the grandfathered plans — and the plans chose to drop them instead. So now the president announces that the plans can re-offer the grandfathered plans they were already allowed to offer, but chose to drop. Which the plans not just won’t, but can’t do, making the president again look like a liar.

    This is political malpractice — the president has just made another healthcare promise on which he cannot deliver. And just like the first time, he appears to have no clue that he is doing so.  This is going to be like chickenpox — the first time, it is bad enough. But when the same virus comes back the second time you get shingles, a much worse and more painful condition.

    It’s almost as if no Democrat has ever worked in the health insurance industry or at least the White House isn’t checking with them. You’d think the political and communications advisers would want to get the policy part right to make sure the reality would match the message, but they appear oblivious.

    So weird.  Potentially devastating and entirely self-inflicted.

    OK, a bonus entry: from a software person who thinks that this is all so bad that maybe it is sabotage:

    This editorial is from SDTimes [Software Development Times] a fairly respectable trade rag for software development. They offer an interesting perspective/theory on why healthcare.gov is failing.  I haven't seen this notion advanced anywhere else, but the technical aspects are plausible. Anyone can have their own opinion as to whether the insurance companies are doing this deliberately. 

    I can't assess any of this first-hand but the ferocity of the judgments, from people (a) in a position to know and (b) sympathetic to the administration is sobering. 

  • On the Road Note: Radio, Software, the Dilemmas of the Press

    A broadcast to hear, an essay to read, a pattern to wonder about. Fortunately, it's a Sunday. 

    I have been offline for a while because of (a) the long process of traveling to Greater China, plus (b) events once I got here, of which more soon. Starting later this month, my wife and I will be in the position of doing virtually no travel except across our homeland on the American Futures beat. But these past few weeks, several long-planned other journeys, including a valuable one earlier this month for the "Public Knowledge Forum" in Australia and one right now in Hong Kong and Beijing, have occurred.

    For the moment three notes very late on a Sunday night from Beijing:

    1) Radio: Just before leaving on this trip, I had a chance to talk with Kai Ryssdal, on Marketplace, on what we're learning from our cross-country journeys so far. The audio and web features are here

    2) Software: In between travels these few days, I've been doing fact-check followups and copy-edit duties on an upcoming magazine article centered on the little town of Eastport, Maine. I mention this because I felt a kindred spirit when I coming across this very nice essay by Mark Bernstein, designer of the "artisanal software" Tinderbox, on the art, science, and emotion of creating a program that meets his own standards of being elegant, and right.

    What Bernstein describes, and what I've been trying to work out for this article (and all articles we print), are not quite the same as the very familiar Steve Jobs story of insisting that the inside of a computer look nice even though no customer would ever see it. The difference is that people will notice if a program has bugs and crashes, or if an article gets facts wrong. Still, there is a craftsman pride on working details no customer / reader / civilian will ever notice, just because you enjoy the steps and standards involved in trying to get them right. Bernstein's essay captures this well.

     3) Bloomberg and China. I have meant to write about this in the past week, and will try to do so after talking with people I know here in Beijing. But at face value, this story is developing in a way that reflects badly on the Bloomberg organization -- and, of course, on the pro-censorship factions within the Chinese government.

    If you've missed the background, some of the main installments are here, here, and here. It's possible that the impression of initial coverage is unfair. But:

    A) The response out of Bloomberg has not been what you would normally expect from an organization that feels it's been unjustly accused. The "this is all wrong!" denials have been notable in their vagueness. Matthew Winkler, the Bloomberg editor-in-chief who is described as having ordered the soft-line approach on Chinese stories, has strangely kept up a Twitter feed on varied items in the news with no mention of this topic. 

    B) Journalism has of course always involved conflicts of interest and tradeoffs. Because most of what we consider "serious" journalism -- foreign reportage, investigative coverage, local or statehouse beat reporting -- has never paid its own way, it has traditionally survived by being bundled into some larger and more profitable organization. This in turn has often involved snarls about humoring or offending advertisers, advancing the publisher's pet causes, remembering how your business stays afloat. You don't have to trust me: you can go to the movies for proof! Citizen Kane, ChinatownAbsence of Malice, Good Night and Good Luck, and many others are all on this theme.

    The concern in the Bloomberg case -- and frankly, the appearance so far -- is that these age-old pressures are recurring in a large and awkward way. The New York Times and Washington Post face similar worries and tradeoffs: how cavalier can you afford to be about irritating your business base? The Atlantic faces them too. But for these organizations and many others, the journalistic-credibility part of their business is a very major part of the business as a whole. Without that, their/our entire business operation is jeopardized. So for your own survival, when in doubt you lean toward publishing a controversial story. In Bloomberg's case, the non-journalistic part of the business is vastly larger than the (nonetheless large) journalistic side. Until now, that's mainly seemed good, in providing a reliable bankroll for first-rate journalism, when "normal" journalistic organizations are in such straits. The question now is whether we're seeing the bad side of the bargain.

  • Who Are You Calling a Vocational School? In Defense of Maine Maritime

    By John Tierney

    By John Tierney

    A few days ago, I wrote a piece here as part of the American Futures series, taking a look at the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), a college I had heard good things about.  Wanting to learn more about it, I traveled to Castine, Maine, did a day of interviews and touring, and came away impressed by what I saw. (Photo above is of MMA student center.)

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    Within several hours of when the piece went up on the Atlantic’s website, with the subhead “How a school you’ve (probably) never heard of is preparing students for good jobs,” someone unknown to me, a dean of students (and politics professor) at a west-coast liberal-arts college (okay, let’s just say it: Pomona College) opined on Twitter, acknowledging the piece and dismissing MMA as providing “vocational not broad-based education.”

    Taking umbrage at her view, which struck me as narrow and uninformed, I tweeted back: “Not vocational. Just specialized, which far more colleges should try to be.”

    Soon her reply came back through the Twittersphere, offering her view of a broad-based education and, I presume, distinguishing that from what she assumes students do not get at institutions that are not liberal-arts colleges: “Discovery, empathy, adaptability is goal of broad-based education, prepares students for life, learning & jobs known & unknown.”

    Holy cow. Now my blood pressure was rising, and I didn’t even have a dog in this fight. I didn’t go to MMA; I just wrote about it. But I resented – on behalf of Maine Maritime Academy and its students and faculty, past and present – the smug, arrogant condescension of her reply.

    I tweeted back: “And what would make you think those things are foreign to MMA?”

    Apparently the good dean had had enough of me, because the tweet-stream went silent and I heard from her nevermore.

    But the next day, I received an email from a 1994 graduate of Maine Maritime, complimenting me on the piece about his alma mater (that’s MMA’s Dismuskes Hall, pictured above), but also gently taking me to task:

    I recently read your article in The Atlantic about MMA and I felt compelled to reply.  I am a 1994 alumnus of the academy and enjoyed my 4 years there in the Nautical Science major ("Deck") and benefitted greatly from the experience.  I was also in the school's Navy ROTC unit and received a commission as an Ensign and served two tours in the active duty Navy aboard a destroyer and an aircraft carrier, both homeported in Norfolk, VA. I also worked aboard several merchant vessels before coming ashore to get an MBA and work in Finance at Raytheon. So I would say MMA was a great deal for my career development as well.. . .

    I feel I must take issue with a certain tone I detected in your article. While countless Maine residents have benefitted greatly from the college, going on to pursue incredibly lucrative careers, MMA exists as more than just a vocational training facility. This is a four-year accredited college, with programs for all levels of academic degrees, as well as an extensive research facility. . . . MMA is more than just a vo-tech [school] for impoverished Mainers, it's an industry-leading bastion of academia for the world-encompassing maritime industry. The institution may be new to you and most of mainstream America, but, since 1941, MMA has been well recognized by Navy and Merchant Marine officers, oceanographers, scientists, and other professionals connected to the sea and all its facets.

    So, now I had reactions of two different kinds, both with vocational education as their point of reference. The dean/prof was dismissive of MMA, slotting it into some kind of voc-ed category in her head. The MMA-grad-former-mariner-now-finance-guy was apparently worried that my piece gave the world the wrong impression of MMA: people might think it’s a voc-ed institution!

    All this led me to two lines of thought. First, I should correct any impression I unintentionally gave that Maine Maritime is a vocational school. It is not. As my email correspondent notes, it is a fully accredited, four-year college that offers associates, bachelors, and masters degrees in a variety of disciplines and fields. Faculty teach standard liberal-arts courses (writing, art, history, literature, physical and natural sciences, foreign languages, psychology, political science, etc.).  Students in various majors have different liberal-arts distributional requirements, but everyone takes a healthy complement of such courses – in addition, of course, to their demanding array of courses required of their major. When I studied the course catalog, it boggled my mind how much these students have on their plates. The quarter-system calendar that MMA uses helps a bit with that.

    Let’s look, for example, at some of the non-business & logistics courses that students going for the Bachelor of Science in International Business & Logistics must take. First year: Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, Composition (Writing), Finite Math, World Geography, Humanities, Calculus for Business. Second year: Contemporary World Politics, Foreign Language (Spanish, French, or German), and one of these: Ocean Science, Physics, or Chemistry. Third year: World Geography II, Humanities II, Contemporary World Politics I.  Fourth year: One of each of these: Economics elective, general-education elective, Humanities elective.

    Or consider those doing marine engineering. (That’s probably a marine-engineering major working on that diesel engine in the photo above.)  In addition to the many required courses in their major – courses like Ship Structure & Stability, Diesel Power I & II, and Power Control Electronics – these students have the following arts-and-sciences requirements as well. First year: Composition, Math, Humanities I (interdisciplinary course looking at “cultural roots of modern global society” through the middle Renaissance), and Technical Physics. Second year: Humanities II (late Renaissance to the present), Technical Physics II, Thermodynamics I. Third year: Chemical Principles and electives in each of these: economics, humanities (which includes foreign languages), history, and psychology. Fourth year: Intro to Environmental Regulations and Ethical Industrial Compliance, and electives in each of these: economics, humanities, history, and psychology.

    Students in many of these majors at MMA also have all the additional courses and exams required to meet the Coast Guard’s licensure requirements.

    I can't speak for the dean at Pomona, who (like me) has a PhD in political science, but I know that I would have found those MMA courses more challenging than the ones I had to take en route to my doctorate, which for the record was at Harvard. And when I got my BA at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s, the distributional requirements there were nowhere near as broad as those at MMA.

    That brings me to my second line of thought: what is it about professors and administrators in many liberal-arts colleges that leads them to believe the kind of education their institutions provide is somehow superior to, more formative of a good life, than education that is more career-oriented? Even if my Twitter-spondent, had been correct in her view about what MMA is all about, what would make her think that people graduating from places like Pomona are somehow more empathetic and adaptable, more open to discovery, more prepared for “life, learning & jobs known & unknown” than people who graduate from other kinds of institutions?

    Do empathy, adaptability, and other desirable characteristics emerge only from being a student at places like Pomona, Macalester, Williams, or (to name some of MMA’s competitors in Maine) Colby, Bowdoin, and Bates? Of course not. (Those are a couple of empathetic, adaptable MMA students in the photo above.)

    Should we assume that people who go to the Coast Guard Academy, the Colorado School of Mines, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Fashion Institute of Technology (or scores upon scores of other places) are somehow more narrow-minded people? Less adaptable? Less open to discovery? Less prepared for “jobs unknown” than a your standard small-liberal-arts school graduates? Oh, please. 

    This is a big topic that I want to think about and write about some more. I’d appreciate your views. Write to me at the address below. I’m laying down a marker here, planning to come back to this later.

    Thinking about this yesterday, I wrote to a friend I’ve known for over forty years, a professor at Connecticut College, a liberal-arts bastion if there ever was one. Telling him about my Twitter-spondent, I wrote: “I wonder what makes some people at liberal-arts colleges so dismissive of, and condescending toward, institutions that actually train people for careers.”

    He responded with this:

    Our faculty is now going through one of those reconsiderations of the "general education" scheme. In the committee's draft of the "guiding principles" was something about "Intellectual and creative skills." A bunch of people objected to the word "skills." We're a liberal arts college, they reasoned, we don't teach skills. One person argued that teaching "skills" would implicate us in the depredations of capitalism. Skills is now out. The new word is "competencies." No one is happy with it.

    Good lord. Give me the Maine Maritime Academy any day.


    John Tierney. Write  me at TierneyJT at Gmail-dot-com. Twitter: @_JohnTierney_


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