James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
No one knows the cause of the latest airline disaster, the Germanwings crash yesterday in Southern France. As is usually the case after crashes, most first-day speculation is wrong or implausible. Also as is usually the case, Patrick Smith of AskThePilot has debunked many of the most fanciful cable-news theories, for instance that the plane might somehow have been remotely controlled, like a drone, or victim of "hacking" of its flight software. Without getting into all the details, this is vanishingly unlikely to have been the cause, and is so far-fetched as to merit no on-air discussion time.
The main fact that is now established is that the airplane flew steadily along its course, descending at a faster-than-normal but not-necessarily-emergency rate of 4,000 feet per minute, until it flew right into a mountainside. This is the scenario known in aviation as Controlled Flight Into Terrain, or CFIT, and it usually occurs at night or in the clouds when a flight crew does not realize what it is about to hit. It is different from what you would expect if the plane had broken apart or suffered some other major structural or control failure while aloft.
The long, controlled flight path to disaster, combined with the reported absence of any radio transmission from the crew, would be consistent with the flight crew somehow being incapacitated and unable to control the plane. This scenario would involve:
a) something very bad happening very suddenly, like an explosive decompression or an electric fire that filled the cockpit with smoke;
b) the flight crew quickly dialing an expedited-descent rate into the autopilot (but not setting a minimum altitude at which to stop the descent); and then
c) the flight crew, for whatever reason, being disabled very soon afterwards, before they could level off at a safe altitude, adjust the autopilot's flight path to turn away from the mountains, or even make a radio call. This would also be consistent with their not switching the transponder, which emits a four-digit code identifying each flight, to the 7700 code for "Emergency." The flying world's mantra for priorities during an emergency is: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, in that order. So trying to get the plane down to a safer altitude would have come before bothering to make any radio calls.
Whether any of this happened, and why, is what a Cockpit Voice Recorder should eventually clarify, since the members of the crew would have been talking with each other even if they were not making radio calls. Until that is known, here is a dramatic illustration of how powerful and strangely undetectable the effects of hypoxia—lack of oxygen—can be.
Here is another disturbing one, "Four of Spades," which again conveys how limited oxygen can destroy reasoning power without the victim's being aware of it.
Back in the 1980s, I went through this pressure-chamber training before taking a flight (which I described in this magazine) in an Air Force F-15. The process was slightly different from what's shown in these videos: As the oxygen level went down, I was told to keep writing words and doing simple arithmetic problems on a little paper pad. When it was over, I looked at the pad and could barely understand any of the letters. I could, though, see that I had been unable to solve the math problem of 3 + 4.
Sympathies to all affected, and I hope at least the mystery of what happened can be solved soon.
Last May, Deb Fallows wrote an account of a historical coincidence that linked TheAtlantic Monthly of 150 years ago with the American Futures project we're doing for TheAtlantic these days.
In the town of Columbus, Mississippi, part of the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi we described in more than a dozen posts last year, a few Union soldiers killed at the battle of Shiloh were buried in the local cemetery along with the much larger number of Confederate soldiers. In 1866, four women from Columbus decorated the Confederates' graves and decided to honor those of the Union soldiers as well. They also sent notes condolence to the northern soldiers' families. Based on this act of commemoration and conciliation, Columbus, Mississippi considers itself (as do several other cities in America) as the originator of Memorial Day.
In 1867, TheAtlantic Monthly published a poem called "The Blue and the Gray," by Francis Miles Finch, that was certainly based on the Columbus observances. Finch, who then lived in Ithaca, New York, had read newspaper accounts of the women's gesture and was moved to write a poem of tribute to them. Everything about today's Mississippi is shaded by the state's past 50 years, and past 150, and past 300—as people there are the first to recognize. For some of the ways people discussed these concerns with us, consider "The Endless Civil War Goes On," "The Endless Civil War, Continued," and "The Civil War That Does Not End."
This last post included videos of some of the historic re-enactments that students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science perform in a Columbus cemetery, which brings me at last to today's announcement of an important commemorative performance that will happen there soon.
* * *
Five years ago, as part of the national preparations to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the composer John Purifoy, who lives in Tennessee, began work on a project that would eventually bring him to Columbus. As he wrote in an email this week to Deb:
In 2010 I was commissioned to compose a large choral and orchestral work commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War by the Knoxville Choral Society to honor their conductor Dr. Eric Thorson. The world premiere took place in 2012 at the historic Tennessee Theater with around 1,100 in attendance. One of the closing numbers of the 54-minute work is a musical setting of the Francis Miles Finch poem, "The Blue and the Gray."
Later that year Distinguished Concerts International New York invited members of the KCS and other professional choral groups around the country to present a New York premiere of the work in Carnegie Hall, June 8, 2014. One of the groups I invited to join us in New York were members of the Columbus Choral Society in MS where the poem was inspired.
You can read about that New York performance here. And see a sample of the program notes below.
Through circumstances you can read more about here and here, the performance is being brought back to the site of its origin, Columbus, this weekend. Members of the Starkville Symphony—Starkville, Columbus, and West Point are the three cities of Mississippi's Golden Triangle—will present the program, along with some 130 singers from the Columbus Choral Society and visiting groups.
There are lots of other events in the area this weekend, including a special performance by students from the Mississippi School for Math and Science of their historic re-enactments, Tales from the Crypt, featuring the 2015 version of the Decoration Day Ladies; details in the Commercial Dispatch. Sorry we can't be there.
Over the past few weeks I've received emails like the one below almost every day.
I am just contacting you to see if you would be interested in hosting some third party content on your website, theatlantic.com?
I am currently working with a sports betting website to find websites to submit unique articles to which link back to our client's website.
We would make the article look natural by choosing a topic which is relevant to your website.
The article would need to remain live for a minimum of 12 months, be free of any tags such as guest or sponsored as well as containing no nofollow links.
If this is something that you would be interested in, please email me back so we can discuss the details further such as reimbursement.
The letters vary enough in length, phrasing, introductory greeting, and detailed proposals to suggest they're not all coming from the same boilerplate source. But they're similar enough in their overall pitch—we'll pay you to publish "sponsored content" as long as you conceal the fact that it's sponsored—to suggest, as with the endless flood of "I am the former Finance Minister of Gabon with $35 million for you" scam notes, that someone has figured out a potentially lucrative opportunity. Based on IP addresses, currency details, and so on, most of the senders seem to be based in Europe or Australia, but who knows where they're really from.
* * *
I finally wrote back to one of the senders a few weeks ago. Here's the exchange that followed, with all messages in their entirety:
First incoming pitch:
I am J... from a media communications and creative writing company. I am just contacting you to ask if you would be interested in working together for my new campaign, for which I would like to provide your website,theatlantic.com, with a high quality, relevant article based on a current big news topic. With this new campaign there is a number of different opportunities and different content that we are looking at posting.
We are keen to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with you. Could you please let me know if you would be interested? I would be glad to send you more detailed information about this, including the client details and the remuneration.
I look forward to hearing back from you and thank you for taking the time to read this email.
After deleting scores of messages like this I thought it would be interesting to find out a little more. So, in quasi-Catfish spirit, I wrote back as follows:
Yes, I would be interested in hearing more about your campaigns.
And he replied:
I am looking at getting a article placed on your site by my team of creative writers regarding some of the latest industry news around [a big online gambling company], so the article would be igaming/gambling related,but not as a advertisement.
The article it self would be a well researched and written piece looking some of the latest news around [the company], so the acquisition of some of its brands by [another company] and also how the industry is now focusing on women as a main target audience instead of male's
All we would require is the article be live for 12 months, not to be tagged as guest or sponsored and if its possible to have links set as dofollow, if this is not possible we can have nofollow and no links just the brand mention, the budget for this campaign is flexible depending on if we can have links within the article or not
If you could get back to me about if this would be possible and how much it would be that would be great
To spell one detail out: dofollow and nofollow are HTML tags that affect how search engines rank a target site's plausibility and thus its standing in search results. With a dofollow tag, like the one this guy requests, a link from a high-volume, high-ranked mainstream media site (like TheAtlantic's) could give a big boost to the linked-to gambling site. With nofollow, the link wouldn't do much good.
I didn't send anything back. A few days later he wrote to ask if I was still interested. I answered, quoting and highlighting part of his note:
>>not to be tagged as guest or sponsored and if its possible to have links set as dofollow,<<
We could not do that.
He replied with an exploration of another possibility:
If there was no links in the article would it be possible to tag it under the authors name?
I said that unfortunately this wasn't going to work:
We could not publish sponsored / outside content without labeling it as such.
And that was all. I have no sweeping point to make here, and I'm not naming this writer or his company because they're just the ones I happened to engage with. But I thought this was an interesting glimpse into one more subterranean layer of the shifting landscape on which "online content" is built.
By the time of his death on Monday at age 91, Lee Kuan Yew had been out of the Western limelight long enough that some people may wonder why his passing deserves such notice.
I'd offer these reasons:
• A post-colonial leader who lasted. Fifty-five years ago, when a slew of former European colonies were gaining independence and other nations were taking modern form, the landscape was full of charismatic leaders. Kwame Nkrumah was president of Ghana. Jomo Kenyatta was in detention but would become the president of Kenya. Ben Bella led Algeria. Patrice Lumumba became (briefly) prime minister of Congo. Julius Nyerere was about to become prime minister of Tanganyika, which was about to become Tanzania. Nasser was president of Egypt and (briefly) of the United Arab Republic. Tunku Abdul Rahman was head of Malaya, which had not yet become Malaysia and at the time included Singapore. And on down a long line—including of course Mao Zedong, then a decade-plus into his control of China.
Within a few years most of them were gone, because of coups, corruption, assassination attempts or successes, or other challenges. But not Lee Kuan Yew. In 1960 he had already been elected prime minister of Singapore, which a few years later would separate from Malaya/Malaysia to become an independent state. He stayed in that role until 1990. The few early leaders who lasted as long as Lee Kuan Yew, notably Fidel Castro in Cuba and Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d'Ivoire, increasingly shielded themselves from real democratic accountability. Lee Kuan Yew's version of democracy for Singapore was a "guided" one, as I'll mention below. But I can't think of another figure from that era whose power and reputation were as durable.
• A practitioner and a theorist. The Western world knows its statesmen, nation-builders, and political leaders. Churchill, de Gaulle, and Mitterand. FDR and—whichever Americans you'd choose after that. And not just the Western world: Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh.
Then as a separate category we have the big thinkers. George Kennan or Hans Morgenthau for an earlier generation of Americans. Henry Kissinger, for better or worse, in this niche now.
Lee Kuan Yew is the rare person to come close to being recognized in both realms. (Richard Nixon aspired to this status, but that's for another day.) While in office, he cultivated leaders from around the world who turned to him for his big-picture strategic guidance. At the moment I can't think of any particular piercing insight he provided, which I don't mean in a dismissive way. (Early and often he counseled Western leaders about the importance of coping with China, and also its possible menaces.) But time and again foreign leaders sought his judgment on big strategic questions, and outside scholars and journalists pored over his comments in interviews. Not many practicing politicians can present themselves simultaneously as geostrategists, and he managed to be taken that way.
• A man equipped and ready to debate the Western world on its own terms. Lee Kuan Yew's original first name was Harry, and English was his native language. His renown in Singapore included the fact of his having earned a "double first" in law studies at Cambridge University and then having gone into legal practice in England.
Through Lee Kuan Yew's era as leader of Singapore and in the decades since then, a remarkable trait of this tiny country's political culture has been its willingness, even eagerness, to take on outside critics and prove, prove, prove why it is completely right to do things exactly the way it chooses to. Anyone in the international press who has worked in Southeast Asia, including me, is likely to have run afoul of official Singapore's sensitivities at some point. When I was living in Malaysia in the late 1980s, I observed the beginning of a long-standing feud over press freedoms between William Safire, a former Nixon aide who was then an influential New York Times columnist, and Lee Kuan Yew's government. (You can see a later ripple of the feud here.) I never was vouchsafed the opportunity to interview Lee Kuan Yew directly, but I saw him speak at many events in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, and I received starchy notes from Singaporean officialdom when I wrote anything they thought incorrect in any detail.
At the time, the thin-skinnedness of Lee's government seemed noteworthy. (In their prime, they might well have served me with a libel action for the preceding sentence. Or at least submitted a 5,000-word letter to the editor with a demand that it be run with not a single word changed or cut.) But from a distance, the yet more remarkable fact is a non-Western state assuming that it could and should engage the world's opinion machine on its own terms, in its own language, and in its own forms of debate. This really is something we have not seen anywhere but Singapore.
* * *
Lee Kuan Yew's form of government had its clear strengths and limitations. When we would take trips to Singapore from our home further up the Malay peninsula in Kuala Lumpur, we would know that everything could be done more efficiently in Singapore, but that you would have to watch your step in various ways. It was and is the best possible version of an authoritarian guided democracy. Family ties have mattered a lot in Singapore: the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son, and happened to become the youngest brigadier general in his country's history at age 31. But an America that is contemplating a possible Bush-Clinton run for the presidency can't act too shocked when meritocracy takes this form.
Lee Kuan Yew certainly changed history, and from my perspective he changed it mainly for the better. Fuller assessments will follow from more-informed sources (and see Matt Schiavenza's assessment here), but on the occasion of his death that is the note I choose to strike.
I've been warming up to do a big report on what is interesting, and uncertain, about the big push underway in Fresno to rebuild and revitalize what is now its very troubled downtown. Then I realized that instead of trying to swaddle the whole thing in narrative, it would make most sense just to deliver the main points. That's what you'll find below.
But you'll find it after this little interruption about a different narrative: I don't know that we would have done so if we hadn't recently spent a lot of time in California's Central Valley, but last night, instead of working on this post, I went with my wife Deb to see the Kevin Costner movie McFarland, USA. It has not turned into a smash box office hit, as suggested here, so it may not be around forever. But it's a far-more-artful-than-usual presentation of a narrative that is familiar from Hoosiers or Breaking Away to Karate Kid or Rocky, combined with a quite unusual and valuable depiction of Central Valley farmland culture that will be news to many viewers. Plus RogerEbert.Com says it's a career-high for Kevin Costner, and the director is Niki Caro, of Whale Rider fame. Its central theme also involves the local patriotism and development of community that we've encountered again and again in our travels. (We'll have to stop in the real McFarland on the next swing up the Valley.) Give it a try.
Now, back to Fresno, an hour's drive north of McFarland on Highway 99.
• Downtown as bellwether. As we've traveled around the country, we've become stronger and stronger believers in the connection between the condition of a city's downtown district, and the overall state of the city's economy and culture.
Yes, you can find exceptions. But most of the time, when you've got a downtown district with a self-sustaining combination of retail outlets (especially non-chain stores); restaurants and bars and brewpubs and music sites (to draw people downtown at night); public art or festivals or live events (to give people a civic sense-of-self); and, crucially, residential spaces (where people who don't have children or whose children have grown up live in second- and third-story apartments above stores and restaurants, providing street life through the evening and a general sense of bustle in downtown)—when find a place with those things, it's very likely that all the other economic, cultural, civic, and educational indicators of local well-being will be positive too.
• Stages of downtown recovery. But a successful downtown is not all-or-nothing proposition. We've seen cities at almost every imaginable point along this curve. Full, functioning ripeness—as in Greenville, South Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Ohio; little Holland, Michigan; or Riverside, California. Nearly there—as with Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Winters, California. Moving in the right direction—like Duluth, Minnesota, or Columbus, Mississippi, or Redlands, California, or tiny Eastport, Maine. Just kicking off a big new effort—as in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Or trying to figure out what to do next—as in San Bernardino, California.
Along this arc Fresno occupies an interesting position. To outsiders, it looks as if the downtown is still in quite tough shape. To the people working on its recovery, the big, important decisions about moving forward have been taken, and the payoff is about to appear. As suggested by the ubiquitous stickers for the downtown "I Believe" campaign. By the way, the I Believe Fresno site has a useful interactive timeline to illustrate the rise, fall, and hoped-for rise-again of the downtown district.
• Background source of trouble. In a few cities, the main problem has been fundamental economic dislocation. In Ajo, Arizona, as we'll soon describe, a giant copper mine closed, suddenly eliminating most of the area's job. Similar pressures have affected Charleston, West Virginia, as the coal and chemical industries contracted, and Pittsburgh long ago (before its rebound) as the steel factories went down.
But in many other cities, the problem is: sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. As I mentioned last week in kicking off the Fresno coverage, the city is kind of laboratory study of the destructive power of sprawl. All of the tract-home development and malls went to the north side of town, and the poor people and the blood banks and the payday check-cashing operations were concentrated in what was once the downtown commercial center. Here again is the useful map that we saw in Mayor Ashley Swearingen's office of where the city grew before World War II, in blue, and where it grew after that, in red.
The blue area is full of once-grand, now mainly run-down commercial and civic buildings, plus the city's poorest residents. The red is familiar mall-and-tract-home territory and economically better off.
• The need for a public champion. Where there is a successful downtown, you will almost always find a strong mayor, or series of mayors, working in "strong-mayor" systems to use their leverage on behalf of downtown improvement.
That's been the case in Burlington, Vermont, from the then-Socialist mayor Bernie Sanders through the current Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger. It's been true in Greenville, South Carolina, from the Democratic mayor Max Heller through the current Republican Knox White. (I compared-and-contrasted Burlington and Greenville in this magazine article.) It's been true in Duluth, Minnesota, from Gary Doty to current mayor Don Ness, both from the Democratic-Farm-Labor party. Or in Columbus, Ohio, especially under current Democratic mayor Michael Coleman. And in cities with weak-mayor systems, you will find some other strong figures in public-office positions: county commissioners, hired managers, etc.
In Fresno, the public champion and exerciser of public leverage through the past six years has been Ashley Swearengin, a Republican who was elected six years ago, at age 36, and got 75 percent of the vote in her re-election run two years ago. (She is term-limited and has only two more years to go. Whatever their pluses or minuses elsewhere, term limits seem an obviously terrible idea for most city governments, since steering a city's development is best done over much longer time horizons. That is, voters should have the option to keep mayors in place if they want.)
When we visited Mayor Swearengin in her office, she spent all her time pointing from one map to the next, showing the sequence in which changes in traffic flow, public-transit lines, development hubs, and so on, could help the city recover. She told us that the blue/red map you see above, combined with another one showing the concentration of poverty downtown, "is what caused me to run in 2008." She pointed to another map for the city's 2035 General Plan (which you can see here), with more or less the view you see in the next image, and said, "Here you see the downtown as the city's heart, and Blackstone [a main N-S drag] as the spine, residential areas as the lungs..." and on through the parks and trails and transit lines that "would give life to the city.
An an aerial view, in her office, of the city's now sclerotic heart:
The details of the downtown redevelopment plan are voluminous—and, to me, very interesting, but I'll skip past them today. I will say that you can find an overview on the city's site here, and if you'd like a nearly 400-page chapter-and-verse you can find it in a PDF here. The point for now is that successful cities all seem to have a public figure who invests a lot of capital in downtown improvement, and under Mayor Swearengin, Fresno has fit that pattern. Here's one more of her 2035-plan maps, of the planned bike, walking, and running paths:
I've gotten this far in the post and this late in the day, and still have three list-points to make:
• The need for private-sector pioneers, in addition to public champions. That is, people willing to make a business bet on the future of the downtown region. Fresno has several important people in this category.
• The need for a shared city narrative, which is especially important in a city conscious of its many problems, as Fresno is. And,
• The ability to leap ahead in time, at least when it comes to thinking.
There's more to say on each of those points, but since I'm hard up against a 12-hour period offline I will save them for the next installment. For now I will give a teaser from the final point. This is based on my talk with Jake Soberal, co-founder of Bitwise, whom I mentioned this earlier dispatch and whose company is opening a big, new downtown facility.
Where is Fresno on the arc of recovery? I asked him. "I drive down Van Ness [a main downtown street] to work each day. And if you're a person from outside you probably think, 'Well, you've got some historic buildings here. But it's a pretty crummy downtown, compared to what's happening in other places in America.'" I told him that is pretty much what I thought.
"But when I drive down that street," he said, "I realize that Joe is doing a project there, and someone is doing a project there, and this building is under lease, and that building is about to be reopened. And I look at it and think, It's done!"
"I mean this earnestly, and I'm not being flippant. Downtown revitalization in Fresno is done, in terms of making the decisions. Now we just have to let it happen."
With allowances for the upbeat bias of any entrepreneur, I understood what he meant. More on what that means, and on the importance of private pioneers and a changed city narrative, in the next update.
Following this item last night and another a few hours ago, two more reader reactions for the mix. I'm adding them because each strikes a note different from those in the previous group.
1) "Our survival comes first, not America's." Without elaboration, from a reader in Israel. Punctuation and emphasis in original:
It is a pity that the ignorance and blatant naivety of Americans is beholden as the word of God. When are you going to realize there is a cruel, mean world beyond the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other. Life, YOUR life in particular means very little to most of the world beyond the island of America.
We living here in the Middle East, first and foremost think of how are we going to survive, and not be wiped out by our wonderful, friendly and JEW HATING neighbor nation states. Now you want to shove down our throats another JEW HATING nation state? Please Mr. Fallows, you have to be kidding.......
Didn't America make enough mistakes in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan already? And now you are doing your best to screw up with Iran.
This is the real reason Bibi won the elections. Our survival comes first, not America's. Maybe Bugi would have been good for America, so go ahead and vote for him for POTUS. In the meantime, Netanyahu will be responsible for our survival. For better or worse, he is the best we have at the moment.
Hopefully, we will have good or even better leaders in the future. I wish the same for you. Obama is the worst POTUS since Herbert Hoover. Ask any leader in the world today. Putin laughs, Assad thinks he is a joke, and the Saudis can't understand how a man so ignorant of world affairs gets reelected..... .
Mr. Fallows, please take care of your own political problems and fallacies. For better or worse, the Israeli public has spoken with more than 70% of the eligible voters casting their vote and exercising their democratic rights.
When was the last time more than 70% of American eligible voters bothered to go to the polls?
Give us the respect we deserve as a vibrant democracy, even if the outcome was not to your liking. By the way, I didn't vote for Bibi either......
Actually, I will add one elaboration. I thought it would be obvious, but in case it's not: I have all respect for Israel democratically making choices for its future. I have never once suggested to people there or elsewhere how they "should" vote. It's their country, and the decisions are up to them.
My concern is how the United States should assess and react to the results of Israel's democratically made choice.
2) Another entry for the meager 'I agree' pile. A reader says there is a similarity in the two election scenarios I mentioned, but also an under-appreciated and ominous difference:
I was surprised to see that few of the people who wrote in agreed with your analogy [between the US presidential election of 2004 and the Israeli Knesset election this week] , because it struck me as right on the nose.
As you said, we'll have to wait to see what the coalition looks like, but Netanyahu has demonstrated since the 1990s that he has no interest whatsoever in two states, and whoever sits with him in the Knesset there's no reason to think that will change. So while I admire your hopeful optimism about future Israeli policy, I can't share it.
The point I would add to your 2004US/2015Israel comparison is that Israel has a *much* narrower margin for error than America. The 2004 election still haunts the United States (most prominently in the form of Justices Roberts and Alito), but as bad as those four years were (Katrina, continued wars, financial & economic meltdown), they didn't significantly alter America's balance of power or overall security. By the time 2008 rolled around, we still had a UN Security Council veto, a huge and diverse economy, friendly relations with Mexico, Canada and our other traditional allies, etcetera.
Israel in 2015, however, is on a precipice where they might find themselves isolated and nearly friendless by the time voters get a chance to make a course correction. Palestinian UN membership, referrals to the ICC, ever increasing comparisons to Apartheid, the BDS movement, all of these were already eroding Israeli security out from underneath it before the world saw Netanyahu and his odious policies vindicated. Whether or not that perception is just or unjust given messy internal political realities isn't going to matter much on the floor of the UN, before a tribunal in the Hague, or in European parliaments that are already all but openly hostile.
Obviously I don't know who will be in government with him or how long that government will last, but Israel was already very close to international pariah status before Tuesday's election. Now it is closer still, and no one, not even Netanyahu, knows how close to the edge of diplomatic and economic catastrophe they really are.
The gulf in world view suggested here and via other messages is one of several clarifying effects of this 2015 election. I wrote back to the reader in Israel, saying that I planned to quote his message and reminding him that I had always started from the premise that decisions about Israel's future were up to its own people to make.
If the establishment of a Palestinian state, bent on the destruction of our country, no bigger than the State of New Jersey is in America's best and long term interests, than we have no common grounds for a mutual discussion.
Last night I argued that there was a systematic difference in the way election results are seen inside and outside the country that was voting. From the inside, voters often realize how many mixed, random, or contradictory forces may have led to a certain outcome. From the outside, people tend to think: Well, the people of Britain have chosen X, or the people of America have chosen Z.
As applied to the multi-party, coalition-dependent outcome of this week's Israeli election, that could mean that the increasingly hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu stayed in power, thanks to votes that could have been cast for a wide variety of non-hard-line reasons (starting with the economy). I used the comparison of the 2004 U.S. election results, which the outside world saw as clear ratification of the Bush-Cheney Iraq and anti-terrorism policy, while inside the U.S. it involved a host of other factors (the Ohio gay-rights initiative, etc).
Almost no one agrees. A sample of reader reaction:
1) "The comparison doesn't work." From a reader who disagreed with virtually everything I wrote about Iran and the Netanyahu speech to Congress, and who is very glad that the election turned out the way it did:
The Iraq War was controversial in the US in 2004. If John Kerry had been elected, he would have followed a very different policy from that of George W. Bush.
But in Israel, Buji and Bibi had the same policy on Iranian nukes—that they mustn't be allowed. There is no controversy inside Israel on the issue, which is why Iranian nukes weren't an issue in the election.
So anybody who concludes that Israelis back Bibi's position on the negotiations with Iran is 100% correct.
And regarding a Palestinian state, what Bibi actually promised was no more unilateral Israeli withdrawals, which is the only realistic method by which a second Palestinian quasi-state entity could be created. Bibi's exact words were,
"I think that anyone who establishes a Palestinian state today and evacuates land is giving territory to radical Islam from which it will attack the state of Israel. This is simply the reality that has been created in recent years. Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this, sticking its head in the sand time and time again. We are realistic and understand."
Bibi spoke to the Israeli experience, but Western reporters automatically twisted his words to fit their their fantasy reality, in which peace talks are eternal and Palestinians actually want to have a state next to Israel.
By the way, I understand that nicknames—Buji, Bibi—are ubiquitous in Israeli politics, as they long have been in the Philippines. I don't use them because I don't know these people, and to me it would sound fake-cozy to refer to them that way. FWIW.
2) "You are now on your own." From an American on the West Coast with a long background in politics:
Didn’t other nations pretty much say to the US after Bush’s re-election, “Okay, but if you want to start or continue Bush’s wars, you are now on your own.”
Is it not at least conceivable that other nations should now respond to Israel and say, “Okay, but if you truly are not going to agree to a two-state solution, and if your settlements are going to continue to be planned and located to make a two-state solution impossible, then you are now on your own"?
I mean, can we not make continued support contingent on a policy that has at least some hope of leading to (1) peace in the Mideast, and (2) extrication of the US from a situation in which we are attacked and our citizens are killed because we are perceived to support Israel unconditionally?
3) 2004 changed things, and 2015 has too. From another American on the West Coast.
The reelection of Bush did, I fear, reflect an American acceptance, all messiness having been sorted through, of the bizarre idea that Bush was a better leader to safeguard American values and realize her aspirations.
I have not felt the same about my country since, having played poker with George [in various places] often enough to know that he was, of all adult Americans then living, among those least suited for this role.
I have the same reaction to this week's developments in Israel. Netanyahu certainly is not a stupid or stunted man, but he is a willingly and knowingly dangerous catalyst in a bad batch of cultural and ethnic chemistry. I hold Israeli voters responsible for his reelection, and so, my love for Jewish culture and history, and for my Jewish friends and relatives notwithstanding, I have crossed into hostility toward the Israeli nation-state as it now sees itself.
I know that for every Netanyahu there are two or more Barenboims, but Israel has chosen to follow -- and be -- the former.
4) Let's not rush to moralize. From writer Jim Sleeper, a lone "I agree with you" message:
Bravo your post noting what Israel's election and the U.S.'s of 2004 have in common. The differences are vast, but you hit on something inherent in democracy: What may seem monolithically majoritarian abroad is often messier in reality.
And how about Netanyahu's rhetorical reversal today on his election-eve pledge that "There will never be a Palestinian state"? Maybe Kahlon and Kulanu demanded that reversal as the price for their entering the coalition; we'll see. Netanyahu may lose some right-wing party leaders over this reversal, and, like you, I can't pretend to follow his snake-like twists and turns.
But you're right [about the need] to take a broader, longer view. Israel is in trouble; Netanyahu's policies in practice have certainly been a big part of the reason it's in trouble; but they're certainly not the only reason, and it would be nice if the rest of the world acknowledged some of those other reasons in its rush to moralize the election stats.
5) You've been duped. From an Israeli writer who obviously opposes Netanyahu and what he stands for. I've condensed a lot of the internal Israeli detail to focus on parts relevant to the "what this means for the outside world" theme:
I'm afraid you've been misled by Netanyahu's policies of the last two terms.
At base, Netanyahu is an extreme right-winger of the Israeli racist kind. His latest appeal against Israeli Palestinian voters is proof of that, but people who remember the 1996 campaign knew it a long time ago. ... He created a right-wing government, and had a hellish time of it, as far as the world was concerned. He did, however, managed to kill the peace process by endless delays.
He learned from his mistakes. When he came back to power, he used leftist and centrist politicians as fig leaves - Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Tzippi Livni, Yair Lapid. This had, as far as he was concerned, two benefits. One, he deluded the world into thinking that since those center-left people supported him, he actually intended to make peace. He never did, however. His government sped on with the construction of the so-called outposts - which are in fact undeclared settlements. The point of the outposts, all of them are far away from the 1967 border, is to prevent any division of the land. (See this recent report by Yesh Din, a human rights organization.)
The second benefit Netanyahu derived from having centrist partners is he undermined them by their very partnership; their voters, disaffected by their collusion with Netanyahu, drifted away. ...
While Netanyahu may look for more fig leaves, there may be few left - and he may actually have to do in public what he did for six years secretly, i.e. undermine any chance of a two-states solution by endless land-grabs.
6) America as again the promised land. From a reader in Florida:
I appreciate the hopeful note on Israel. Hope you are right.
I think the most consequential American political development of [the Netanyahu Congress speech, the Iran debate, and the Knesset elections] is the end of the assumption that only [expert commentators who are mainly Jewish Americans] get to make any kind of distinction between Jewry and Israel. If any of the rest of us attempt to think it through, it's our latent or cultural anti-Semitism talking. The fiction-crushing aspects of Netanyahu's win are pretty liberating to American liberals. Israel is no longer a truly bipartisan issue.
Right now, there is no denying it, Israel is very illiberal place. It has chosen to be. Its leader needed it to be. It should be easy now for an American liberal to say, "Sorry, can't support the leadership of the global tea party."
I consider American Jews, as a group, probably our single finest group of citizens. I can't imagine America without them. I want more of them. I hope liberal American Jews start encouraging liberal Israelis and European Jews to come to America.
I can't think of a better way to smash the easy, pernicious conflation of support for Israel and support for Jews than to simply recruit more Jews to America. ... If nothing else, simply talking about it, telling the Israeli left come here because it's actually welcome, would be valuable...
This is the type of unpredictable pressures that can affect countries after very clarifying elections. Even if the reasons are messy, I don't know that Israel has ever had a more clarifying election to the world at large, at least not in my lifetime.
This last message may be the place to say: For as long as I've been writing in this magazine, I have argued that America's openness to worldwide talent, ambition, energy, and dreaming is our most important advantage over any other country, and the most important element that makes us, us. When traveling in China, I met students, entrepreneurs, or simple rural families who thought that they'd be better able to realize their dreams if they could do so in America. Similarly in India, and West Africa, and Latin America, and Iran, and Israel, and other places I have been.
The United States obviously can't be home to everyone in the world. But recognizing our crucial role as human talent-magnet is important to our understanding of America's strengths. It also should equip us to face our weaknesses, which very significantly include mistreatment of nearly every component of our pluralistic whole. Including notably, in this context, the European Jews who were shouldered aside rather than embraced as Hitler was taking over Europe. I want ambitious people from around the world, including those uncomfortable with the political climate in Israel, to view this as a potential promised land.
In 2004, more than 62 million Americans voted to bring George W. Bush and Dick Cheney back for a second term. I'm sure that some of those millions did so to register explicit support for the Iraq war and everything that went along with it, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. But for a lot of them the reasons were messier. They didn't like John Kerry, or his windsurfing. They objected to the Democrats' position on taxes or gun control. They were worried about this or that aspect of the economy. In the decisive state of Ohio, the 100,000+ vote margin for the Republicans may have depended on opposition to the state's gay marriage initiative. Democracy is messy, like life.
From outside the country, that messiness didn't matter. People read the results as an up or down verdict on the first four Bush years. And since from outside the country those years mainly amounted to the invasion of Iraq, America was seen as having voted thumbs-up on that decision. Thus front pages like the one at the right, from the Daily Mirror in England. (At the time of the headline, Bush's vote total was a few million short of its ultimate level.) It was too simple a reading, but inevitably it is how the world interpreted the results.
In 2015, millions of Israeli voters decided on a result that will bring Benjamin Netanyahu back for another term. I am sure that some fraction of them did so to register explicit support for Likud policy and all that it has meant. But even without being an expert on Israeli politics I am sure that for a lot of them the reasons were messier. They felt this way about the economy, they felt that way about possible opposition leaders, they voted for Likud as an alternative not to a party further left but one further right. Democracy is especially messy and unpredictable when mediated through a fluid multi-party coalition system.
From outside the country, that messiness doesn't quite register. People naturally read the results as a referendum on Netanyahu's very tough line on Iran negotiations and his recent, revised promise never to allow a Palestinian state. Thus they view the election as they did the U.S. results 11 years ago, as an explicit endorsement of a bellicose foreign policy. Including, in Israel's case, endorsement of stands (on Iran and the two-state prospect) at clear odds with U.S. policy and interests.
In his second term, the re-elected President Bush actually pursued a different policy than he had in his first term. Dick Cheney was corralled; the U.S. undertook no new wars and began repairing some of the relations it had frayed or broken. Four years later, the same U.S. electorate made an entirely different choice.
In Israel, this next stage of forming coalitions and setting policies will help the outside world understand what the latest election "means." If Netanyahu ends up forming a bloc that allows him to say: I ran tough, and I'll govern tougher, so shut up and get used to it, the rest of the world (including the U.S.) can react accordingly. But if somehow he works out an arrangement that allows him to say: That was then, this is now, I recognize that for the good of the nation I need to choose another course, the world can react to that. I'm not expecting the latter, but there's no payoff in giving up hope.
A week ago, my wife Deb and I were driving down Highway 85 in Arizona, toward the southern town of Ajo (which we'll soon be writing about) through the military's very active Barry Goldwater Range. Right above our car, A-10 "Warthogs" swooped back and forth over the highway in training drills. I mentioned last month that to fly a non-military plane along this route, as I had once contemplated, you have to fly right over the highway, stay within 500 feet of the road's surface level, and maintain radio contact with a military controller called Snake Eye. I didn't try it last month and am glad I didn't now, because on their mock strafing runs the Warthogs came impressively/alarmingly low. The picture above, from the Air Force, is a clearer version of what we saw as we drove.
But of course I'm glad to see the A-10s in action and their pilots maintaining proficiency, for reasons I laid out in my article "The Tragedy of the American Military." Let's consider the evolving fates of the A-10 and its ill-starred sibling, the F-35, for what they show about the modern military.
* * *
In my article I argued that the importance of the A-10/F-35 story had relatively little to do with the comparative virtues of either airplane—one relatively cheap but battle-proven and very effective, the other increasingly expensive and also fragile and increasingly difficult to keep out of the repair shop. Rather the real significance was what their stories showed about the cultural and even moral characteristics of the way we think and act on national defense.
Moral? Yes, moral. In public we generally talk about defense as if it were mainly a matter of bombs, machines, and the dollars that buy them. Of course those matter. But from Napoleon ("in warfare the moral is to the physical as three is to one") to Air Force strategist John Boyd (what counts in combat is "people, ideas, and hardware — in that order!"), students of conflict have emphasized the crucial role of character and integrity.
Character and integrity are involved in this battle-of-the-warplanes in the following way (as sketched out in my story): The A-10, which is flown by the Air Force, has always had a strange stepchild status there. It is truly beloved by the Army, whose ground troops the A-10 has saved or protected in so many engagements. To the Air Force, in contrast, this mission of "close air support" has never been a budgetary or cultural priority—as opposed to bombing, aerial combat, "air superiority" in general, and even transport.
In a rationally organized defense system, the A-10 would belong to the Army, which needs and loves it. The Army could include it in its budgets, keep as many flying as possible, make it the center of its close-air-support arsenal. But for bureaucratic reasons known in shorthand as the "Key West agreement," the Army directly controls armed helicopters but not many fixed-wing aircraft. Thus through the decades we've seen a long push-pull struggle between the Air Force, chronically eager to dump the A-10 and make way for other models, including now the troubled F-35, and the Army, which wants the A-10 but has no direct way to keep it in the budget.
Several weeks ago I mentioned the truly alarming news that a three-star Air Force general had warned his officers against speaking up about the A-10's (very strong) combat record. As the Arizona Daily Independent reported, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Post told officers that if word of his views ever got out he would deny it, but he wanted them to know that passing information to Congress about the A-10's effectiveness constituted "treason." When that news leaked, the Air Force didn't even deny Post's comments; a spokesperson just called them "hyperbole."
Since then, news continues to emerge of the institutional military—some people in uniform, others in the contractor diaspora—trying to make the A-10 look worse than it really is, and the F-35 look better. For what these episodes show about military-industrial-political culture, here is a reading list:
"Operation Destroy CAS Update," by the Arizona Daily Independent, which has been all over the A-10 story. CAS is, again, close air support, the mission at which the A-10 has been unexcelled, and the story details Air Force efforts to blunt the fact of the A-10's success.
"U.S. Rep. McSally Urges Halt to 'Disproportionate' A-10 Cuts." Martha McSally, a first-term Republican Representative from Arizona who is herself a former A-10 pilot (and was the first woman in U.S. history to fly combat missions), writes to the new Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, to complain about the anti-Warthog effort.
One obvious problem for 21st-century America: the seeming zero-sum paralysis of our national-level governing system, illustrated most recently by the spectacle of the Congressional-Executive / Republican-Democratic tussling over the Iran negotiations.
Another obvious problem: the seeming polarization of American society on almost every axis, from economic well-being to political and cultural beliefs.
We tend to discuss these problems as if they are serious but only indirectly connected. That indirect link would be via the increasing Citizens United-era dominance of big money in politics. This, in turn, makes it harder even to consider, let alone enact, policies that would blunt the winner-take-all aspects of a globalizing economy or rebuild the public institutions that have historically buoyed a middle class and protected the poor.
One specific virtue of an admirable-on-many-fronts review article by Jill Lepore in the latest New Yorker is that she makes clear the connection between these twin pathologies. This argument comes in a discussion in her piece "Richer and Poorer," which begins with a discussion of Robert Putnam's new book Our Kids and ends with material from a forthcoming book called Inequality: What Can Be Done?, by Anthony Atkinson.
Lepore's whole essay is very much worth reading, but here is the gist of the connection she lays out. She begins with the ever-faddish "culture of poverty" sociological explanations for inequality, including those in Robert Putnam's new Our Kids book. Then she moves to Atkinson's and mentions a study he discusses:
It might be that people have been studying inequality in all the wrong places. A few years ago, two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz—numbers men—tried to figure out why the United States has for so long had much greater income inequality than any other developed democracy...
Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) [Most] countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player [with one-house legislatures] A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality...
Then they observed something more... Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment [in 23 countries], they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.
The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress.
Over the weekend I mentioned the full-throated endorsement, in a Washington Postop-ed by Joshua Muravchik, for going to war with Iran. In case you wonder whether I'm mischaracterizing it, the actual headline on the article was, "War With Iran Is Probably Our Best Option."
Since then the news focus has drifted, partly because of the impending election results from Israel. But the prominent play for such bellicose views was a powerful distillation of what I'm calling the Chickenhawk Nation syndrome: a country in which people breezily recommend war but are uninterested in the tedious details of who will do the fighting or whether the proposed war could be won. Thus some samples of reader reaction:
1) But it's just an op-ed! A number of readers pointed out that this was not the official view of the Post's editorial board but rather that of an outside writer. Indeed, that of a writer known for such views: Back in 2006 he published a very similar op-ed in the LA Times which began, "WE MUST bomb Iran." Today in The Nation Ali Gharib went into more aspects of what he called "The Worst Case for War With Iran You'll Read in a Major Newspaper."
A reader who recently left the military writes:
Generally I detest the "chickenhawk" attack—it seems to me Americans should be able to weigh in on military affairs even if they aren't veterans,and indeed nothing good would happen if you left this stuff to the military to think about. But this disgusted, demoralized former soldier is sick of how often "we can strike as often as necessary," [a line from the WaPo piece] means, "you can." And when you're done, we'll toss you to the curb for being stupid enough to have been a soldier, thankyouverymuch,
That said, though, I'm perplexed by the repeated attacks on the Post for publishing the letter ... The opinion Muravchik voices is very much out in the wild—I for one hear it voiced a lot—and the Post op-eds probably ought to be open to ideas not their own. I'm happier than not that they're letting people—like you—be aware that this idea is out there. That's their job.
Would many nuts (surely including Mr. Muravchik) freak out if some other country's paper wrote something similar? Sure we would. But that's not an argument for making our press monolithic, it's an argument for thinking harder about what it means when something shows up in some foreign news.
I agree that it's useful for this argument to be exposed in explicit form, and that op-ed pages exist in part to show a range of opinion. But anyone who has followed WaPo over the past 15 years knows that along with the WSJ it's had consistently the most hawkish editorial line in foreign policy among the mainstream media. Of the mainstream organs that had pushed hard for the Iraq invasion back in 2002, it is unusual in not having conducted a public "were we wrong?" reassessment, as many others did on the tenth anniversary of the war. Three months ago, Jacob Heilbrunn and and James Carden argued in the National Interest that the Post had become "the most reckless editorial page in America." That's why this article, in this setting, drew a different kind of notice than it would have elsewhere.
2) The quest for virality. A reader writes in about the craft elements of this piece and the decision to publish it.
I'm a journalist who was incensed by Muravchik's chickenhawk column, because it was so smug and so irresponsible.
The journalist part is important to this story. Here's the thing. This column is almost identical to one he wrote in 2006 for the Los Angeles Times. (The names have changed, but the structure and ideas are identical. Even some of the phrases are the same!)
Now, as a person, okay he's been beating the same war drum for ages, big deal. As a journalist, and a freelancer who absolutely struggles sometimes to get stuff out there, I just cannot stand that not only has [various epithets amounting to "he"] not come up with any new ideas in the past nine years, but he is getting uncritical publication from editors in the name of virality, because you know that's what the Washington Post is trying to do.
3) The enemy won't just sit there. Another Army veteran noticed the similarities to Muravchik's 2006 article and made the broader point about the problem with loose chickenhawk talk:
I would like to draw your attention to the fact Mr. Muravchik wrote a nearly identical Op-Ed in 2006 for the LA Times entitled "Bomb Iran" in the middle of the Iraq War... Fanning the flames of war is what he does.
I would also like to point out his confident assumption that war is something we do to other people, and they sit there and take it. Nobody strikes back in a time and manner of their own choosing; nobody has heard of asymmetric warfare. In reality, war is more like football where the opposition has its own strategy, and even takes the initiative once in a while.
Enough said. It is depressing beyond belief that people like Muravchik are enjoying national prominence again.
4) Intensify the contradictions: balanced budget versus more defense spending. Recent news stories, like this one in the NYT, have pointed out a growing tension within the GOP on budget issues. It pits those who are mainly interested in cutting the budget against those who are mainly interested in increasing defense spending — not to mention those who would like to do both. For another time: the way this tension worked out (or didn't) in the Ronald Reagan years. For the moment, this note from a reader:
Thank you for noticing the Washington Post's warmongering, for that is what it is. I would point out that for the previous 4+ years, the Washington Post editorial board has been screaming loud and long about the US debt, which it cites as rationale for cutting seniors' earned, and already less than survival level Social Security benefits.
If the US is so poor that it needs to steal from its grandparents, how can it afford a war with Iran, expansion of the war in Afghanistan, and probably a war with Russia, as well? Why does no one ask the WaPo editorial board these questions?
Tomorrow, we'll see how the results from Israel affect the negotiations with Iran—including the aspect almost never mentioned in US discourse, which is that five other countries besides the United States are currently party to the sanctions and possible deal. These include China and Russia, hardly patsies for U.S. positions, along with France, Germany, and the U.K. The idea that a letter from Tom Cotton and 46 other Senators would change the policy of the Russians or Chinese in a useful direction ... well, welcome to the big leagues, Senator Cotton.
Starting tomorrow in this space we'll look again at the A-10 and F-35 debates, which have had important new developments, and more reader reactions pro and con on the implications of a chickenhawk outlook.
I've made my living as a writer for a very long time now, but I've kept a respectful (wistful) distance from the realm of runaway bestseller hits. The second book with my name on the cover, which appeared when I was 23 years old, eventually sold in the millions and millions of copies. Unfortunately I had hired on as a writer for a total fee I now recall as being $500, though it could have been as much as $750.
It was the book at the right, Who Runs Congress?, the result of a Ralph Nader project, which I wrote with Mark Green and David Zwick in a summer-long eight-week burst. The bulk of the proceeds went not to the authors but to build the Nader movement, which has been mainly to the good. (Yes, I know ... ) My first book, The Water Lords, was from another Nader project two years earlier, and I believe then the pay consisted of room and board plus $250.
After the Congress Project experience I leapt at a "real" writing job that came open, at The Washington Monthly (replacing Taylor Branch, and working with Walter Shapiro) for $8400 per year. Since then I have been grateful for whatever I could earn in journalism. I also decided after my negotiating brilliance with Who Runs Congress? that my best career prospects weren't as a deal-maker.
Now I have a chance to ride once again in the sidecar of publishing success. More than a decade ago, I wrote an Atlantic article about the productivity expert David Allen. He is the author of a very successful book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and originator of what is now known as the GTD approach to life. Since then I've stayed in touch with David Allen, seen him once or twice per year, and come to think of him and his wife Kathryn as friends.
Some readers may never have heard of David Allen; others will recognize him as a celebrity. As @GTDGuy, he has 1.2 million followers on Twitter; his GTD seminars attract large audiences around the world; and the original Getting Things Done has sold steadily in large volumes since its appearance in 2002.
And tomorrow, the first major revision of Getting Things Donegoes on sale. It's been updated to reflect the changes in world technology in the dozen years since its first publication, and also to reflect some of the life lessons David Allen has learned in that time. I know those things about the book because I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading an advance draft so as to write the Foreword to this new edition—which I did on a purely volunteer basis and as a gesture of respect, friendship, and hope that people actually read the book!
Here is a sample from the intro, in which I try to explain why GTD seems different from the usual heap of "Be a WINNER at life!!" business tracts:
What makes Getting Things Done different? In ascending order of importance, I would like these three qualities, each evident in nearly every chapter.
One is its practicality, by which I really mean its modular and forgiving approach. Many self-improvement schemes work from an all-or-nothing, “everything must be different, starting tomorrow” premise. If you want to lose 40 pounds, take control of your financial destiny, straighten out your family, or have the career of your dreams, you have to embrace a radical top-to-bottom change in every aspect of your life.
Occasionally people do make these radical leaps... But for most people, most of the time, approaches that are incremental and forgiving of error are more likely to pay off in the long run. That way, if there is one part of the approach you forget or fall behind in, you don’t have to abandon all the rest.
David Allen’s ambitions for his readers are in a sense even grander than those of most other books. His goal is nothing less than helping people remove stress and anxiety from their work and personal lives, so they can match every moment of their existence to the purposes they would most like to pursue. Yet with a very few exceptions – for instance, his sensible insistence on developing a “capture” habit, so that you are sure to write down or otherwise record every commitment you make or obligation you accept, rather than torture yourself trying to remember them all, and the related insistence on having one central, trusted repository where you keep such data – a great advantage of his system is its modular nature. This book is full of advice that works better if embraced in its totality but is still useful when applied one-by-one....
This is advice from a man who clearly understands that people are busy and fallible. He is writing to offer them additional helpful tips, rather than extra reasons to feel guilty or inadequate. The book is also written with an understanding that life consists of cycles. Things go better, and then worse. At some points we fall behind; at others, we catch up, or try to. When episodes occur, as they will for anyone, in which we are overwhelmed or unable to cope, the book suggests achievable day-by-day steps toward regaining a calm sense of control.
It would be too much to say that anything really gives me a "calm sense of control." But the book is both calming and encouraging. Check it out! And congratulations to David Allen on its appearance.
Earlier this week I mentioned a tech company in the Mural District of Fresno's tattered-but-struggling-to-recover downtown called Bitwise Industries. It's a company we first visited one year ago and have followed ever since. In this and a subsequent post or two, I'd like to say something about the ways in which Bitwise's story sheds light on conditions distinctive to Fresno and its surrounding, hard-pressed Central Valley of California, but also about the ways in which it reflects trends we've seen in every corner of the country.
The familiar elements of this tech-fostering package include: a physical space where startup companies can get going at low cost and with shared facilities; the location of that space typically in a historic downtown area, as part of a larger downtown-renewal effort; courses on relevant skills, from coding to accounting to marketing; connections with more-established local businesses plus financiers and customers; collaborative agreements with research universities, community colleges, and even K-12 schools in the region; and some more.
Bitwise is a "normal" tech-promoting effort in those ways. Jake Soberal, its co-founder and CEO, says he doesn't like the term "incubator," since many of the businesses he works with are already well established. Still, for descriptive convenience the company's efforts resemble those of incubators elsewhere.
But in at least three ways I think Bitwise is interestingly illustrative of its city and region. I'll talk about one of them today: what is involved in trying to create a tech economy, with the high-wage jobs and spinoff business stimulation that presumably means, in a place far removed from the dominant tech centers of the East and West Coasts. (For a previous treatment of this theme in another non-coastal part of California, see this dispatch.) We'll get to the next two—how the company is involved trying to prepare a low-skill, low-wage, high-unemployment local workforce for better tech opportunities, and how it is engaged in the future of the city itself—in follow-on reports.
First, some background: what Bitwise is, and what it's trying to do.
The co-founders of Bitwise, Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin Jr., describe their organization as the "Mothership of Technology" in the Fresno region. In practice that means that their parent organization combines several of the start-up functions sometimes dispersed among different groups.
The company's HashtagFresno component offers low-cost ($39 per month), tech-equipped workspaces for individuals or small teams. Its Geekwise Academy is a coding and tech-skills school, which is developing an intriguing range of specialized programs. Its Shift3 Technologies does contract tech projects for firms in the region and elsewhere, employing local developers, designers, and marketers. And its headquarters building in the Mural District contains separate offices for more than two dozen tech firms.
Later this year the company will open a new, much larger office-and-classroom space in a long-vacant building it is remodeling in Fresno's historic downtown. (That building will also house a lab for the innovative CART school that Deb Fallows has written about.) Soberal said that some 40 tech companies will be housed there, along with more work spaces, classrooms, officers for lawyers or accountants or other allied professionals, et cetera. A Fresno Bee story on the expansion is here. (Note that the Bee has a metered paywall.)
We'll get to the Origin Story of Bitwise another time: What Soberal and Olguin are doing here, how they agreed to work together, what they hope to accomplish for the region. For now the focus is on the improbable challenge of building a tech industry in a part of the country with an agricultural-centric economy, no major nearby research universities, and a reputation (as discussed previously) as a place that ambitious young people move away from rather than return to.
I asked Jake Soberal on this latest visit, as I had earlier on, what he thought could be the business base for a tech economy that was 3+ hours' drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco (sadly, High-Speed Rail does not yet exist) and thus would lack all the place-based advantages that came automatically to firms in SF, Boston, or New York. How could he fight the trend toward the concentration of national and global talent in a handful of hyper-expensive but also hyper-productive big centers?
To boil a long discussion down to two main points, his first argument was that the global centers and the regional ones could prosper together—the latter using their advantage of such dramatically lower operating costs. (Note for future article: In about six or eight big U.S. metro areas, life is ever-shaped by the unavoidable, unbelievable cost of real estate. Since these are the areas that dominate our media, entertainment, and politics, that's cast as an overall American predicament too. But it is not, at least not in most of the places we've been.)
"The per-person total cost of a very happy mid-career developer here is $80,000 to $100,000," Soberal said. "That's half, or less than half, of the cost in the Bay Area" or other big tech centers. "If we can get a critical mass of people here in Fresno who are competent and capable, national and global companies will choose to expand their operations here. The Silicon Valley and Boston and Portland will continue to grow. And so will Fresno—and Des Moines and Wichita. Software and tech have not been a zero-sum game."
That is what you could think of as the "outsourcing" part of the Bitwise/ Greater Fresno tech vision. Another part was more intriguing to me, in that it matched the observation we've heard in the most successful-seeming cities across the country. That is the insistence on "knowing who we really are" in a given city or region, and choosing strategies based on an honest assessment of an area's advantages and handicaps.
What Fresno really is, is the regional capital of one of the world's most important agricultural areas. "The economy is global, but significant strengths are local," Soberal said. "Industries tend to develop in a regional way." He went on to argue (1) that agriculture involves many of humanity's most important challenges, starting with sustainability in all its aspects; (2) that agriculture was still relatively behind in apply modern data tools to its operations; and that therefore (3) tech companies in the Central Valley had an opportunity to become the leaders in a field of ever-increasing important.
"My guess is that 5 to 10 percent of the tech need of the farming industry is now being met," he said. As compared to about 900 percent of the financial services industry and four million percent of the online commerce industry. "You could build a technology industry in Fresno based on that alone, not to mention the worldwide need in agriculture." (For a previous report on high tech in agriculture, see this account by our Marketplace colleagues on our trip to Sioux Falls back in 2013.)
What kind of unmet need? I spoke with Derek Payton, a programmer who is CTO of a company called Edit LLC, which is based in the Bitwise building. He pointed out that modern farmers had an abundance of sensors—on soil moisture, sugar levels in fruit, you name it—but relatively poor tools for combining or analyzing data. (Contrast this with a hospital's Intensive Care Unit, with displays of many important datas all in one place.) Payton's company is working on software to convert data from a wide variety of sources into a standard format so it can be used for a kind of dashboard display.
"You think high tech, you don’t think 'growing food,' " Payton told me. "You think Bay Area, self driving cars, devices to make daily life easier. But we've got a lot of farmers here with a lot of data they don't know what to do with. It can make a big difference to collect the data and put it in usable form."
Will this company pay off? Or others in the Bitwise community? I don't know. But I cannot help but be impressed by the growth I've seen over the past year, and the sense of both mission and community from people involved here.
Upcoming, more about Bitwise as a guide to Fresno's educational and downtown-development efforts. For now, a last word from Derek Payton, when I asked him about a "realistic, positive ambition" for Fresno in five years' time.
"A realistic and positive scenario..." he said. "It would be, when you think of tech in California, you'll think of the Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, and Fresno. There's definitely strong tech potential here."
Thanks to Creative Fresno for permission to use their photos of the city's murals. Here is a link to another project they have underway, and one more about the organization's goals.
When I published my "Tragedy of the American Military" article last month, some people said: No, it's an exaggeration to claim that war is an easy abstraction that people throw around without thinking through the consequences.
Maybe. But I give you the op-ed page of our capital city's main newspaper, which tells us:
"Probably" the best? Grrr. No, almost certainly not. Or so people who had thought about the practicalities argued 11 years ago—when it would have been easier than now.
Of course, I had reckoned without the strong argumentative power of this article's author, Joshua Muravchik. He assures us (emphasis added):
Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary.
Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.
Right, repeated bombing raids "as necessary." What could possibly go wrong with that approach? Yes, "surely the United States could best Iran." Surely we could polish off those backward Viet Cong. Surely invading Iraq would work out great. (I haven't taken the time to see if the author was a fan of invading Iraq, but I have a guess.) Surely the operational details of these engagements are a concern only for the small-minded among us.
How would we think about a "scholar" in some other major-power capital who cavalierly recommended war? How would we think about some other capital-city newspaper that decided to publish it? The Post's owners (like those of the NYT and other majors papers) have traditionally had a free hand in choosing the paper's editorial-page policy and leaders, while maintaining some distance from too-direct involvement in news coverage. Jeff Bezos, behold your newspaper.
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I see from his Twitter bio that Muravchik has seven grandsons. I now have one. The idea that any of them would be involved in a "bomb as often as necessary" strategy??? Maybe the author feels differently, but for me this is appalling.
Today Deb Fallows has the next installment, on an innovative high school called CART, or the Center for Advanced Research and Technology. It's a public charter high school that students attend for half of each school day, spending the other half at their regular high school. While at CART they get an immersion in a variety of career skills. You can read more in Deb's report here.
As Deb points out in this item, innovations in "career technical education" have been a recurring and positive theme through our travels around the country. This is the field that was once dismissively called "vocational ed" or even "trade school." Now it seems increasingly promising as a way to connect students not immediately bound for four-year colleges—because they can't afford it, because of family obligations, whatever reason—with the higher-skilled, higher-wage technical jobs today's economy is opening up, and that are vastly better than the minimum-wage retail/food-service alternative.
Here are some examples from Georgia, northern California, and Mississippi to go alongside this one in Fresno. And as I'll discuss further in our next installment, these developments are a natural complement to the Opportunity@Work initiative that the New America Foundation announced yesterday. (For the record: I've been involved with New America from its start, originally as its board chairman.)