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.
  • The Search for the Killer of Tom Wales Goes On

    Thirteen years ago, a federal prosecutor was murdered in the line of duty. His friends and colleagues continue a campaign to bring the killer to justice.

    Tom Wales

    On the evening of October 11, 2001, thirteen years ago today, a federal prosecutor named Tom Wales was shot and killed while he sat at a desk in the basement-office of his home in Seattle. Wales was 49 years old at the time and had been a federal prosecutor for 18 years.

    I have mentioned the case a number of times through the years (eg here and here) partly for personal reasons. I had met and liked Wales while my wife and I were living in Seattle during the two years before his death. I have come to know his children slightly, and one of his in-laws, Eric Redman of Seattle, is a longtime very close friend. But the Tom Wales case has deserved and received continuing national attention because of two of its unusual and disturbing aspects.

    One is that Tom Wales is believed to be the only federal prosecutor ever killed in the line of duty—that is, murdered or assassinated because of the work he was doing rather than as the object of a "normal" crime. The other is that local law-enforcement officials very quickly settled on a person they thought had unique means, motive, and opportunity to have been the murderer. But for complex reasons neither this person nor anyone else has been charged.

    The best summary of the motives, tangles, and tragedies of the case is Jeffrey Toobin's "An Unsolved Killing" in The New Yorker seven years ago. (Toobin himself is a former federal prosecutor.) I highly recommend that you read that story—and also the note I've just received from Michael Jay.

    Jay, a writer and author of a memoir Dog Water Free, was Tom Wales's roommate when they were undergraduates at Harvard. The main purpose of his note, apart from remembering his friend, is to underscore the ongoing search for leads and tips, and the substantial reward that is being amassed for help in the case. I turn it over to him:

    A PERFECT MURDER?

    THE FBI IS STILL SEEKING CLUES AS REWARD GROWS

    By: Michael Jay

    The National Association of Former United States Attorneys Foundation is engaged in a pledge campaign to match an existing $1Million Reward from the US Department of Justice for information leading to arrest and conviction of persons responsible for the murder of Assistant US Attorney Tom Wales, a career Federal Prosecutor who lost his life to the bullets of an assassin in Seattle, thirty days after 9/11.

    The campaign will run until December 31, 2014

    It is being piloted by NAFUSA Foundation Past-President Mike McKay, US Attorney for The Western District of Washington from 1989 – 1993.

    More than $400,000 has so far been pledged by prominent firms like Williams & Connolly, Perkins Coie, DLA Piper, as well as several NAFUSA board members.

    As most media have reported, “Wales's murder is believed to have been in retaliation for his work as an Assistant US Attorney and was perpetrated or arranged by the target of a criminal investigation,” according to the NAFUSA website.

    Be that the case, Tom Wales would be the only Federal Prosecutor in US history to be killed in the line of duty.

    “It’s a perfect murder, said one investigator. “The only physical evidence are shell casings and spent bullets…Unless someone steps up and talks, this case will never be prosecuted.”

    October 11, 2001

    Seattle Police Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who worked the scene at 108 Hayes Street in the quiet neighborhood of Queen Anne on that night, proclaimed the death of Tom Wales an assassination.

    Avoiding motion detectors that would have set off flood lights in  the back of Wales’ home, the killer must have known the circumstances at the scene, as well as his habit of spending time in his home office late into the evening.

    At work on his computer at 10:40 pm when shots rang out, Wales managed to dial 911 before losing consciousness.

    According to public FBI reports, he was shot multiple times through a window of his basement office.

    The weapon was a Makarov 9mm semi-automatic handgun, equipped with a shiny, stainless steel aftermarket barrel, believed to have been threaded for a silencer.

    Public FBI reports state that Soviet Bloc countries manufactured the Makarov through approximately 1968 and U.S. sales of barrels of this type are rare, which gives investigators reason for hope.

    The aftermarket barrels are rifled with six lands and grooves with a left twist.

    Corporate and Individual Pledges can be made at mdm@mckay-chadwell.com attn: Mike McKay.

    Tips can be made at 1-800-CALL-FBI.

    On behalf of a courageous family that longs for closure, thank you.

  • Vic Braden

    The man who taught America tennis during the boom era of the sport

    VicBraden.com

    Through the 1970s and 1980s, when American tennis was strong and players like Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe were the American face of the sport on court, Vic Braden was (with Bud Collins) the face of American tennis in TV commentary. Collins called the matches; Braden popped up everywhere to give tips on how to play the game.

    The cover of one of his many instructional books

    Tennis has receded enough in popularity that no current figure quite matches his role. The closest sports-world counterparts would be some leading basketball (Phil Jackson?) or football (John Madden?) coach.

    Vic Braden appeared on late-night talk shows and even on network news shows. He wrote a popular series of books and produced instructional videos. His name and always-smiling face were familiar in ads and on the airwaves, in a way that seemed appropriate for the de-country-club-ization of tennis that, with their respective styles, Connors, McEnroe, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King were bringing about.

    What I hadn't realized, until I had a chance to meet him in the 1990s, is that beneath this court-jester exterior Vic Braden was a deep and serious person, and a good one.

    Twenty years ago, when I had finished a very long book writing stint (for Looking at the Sun), I somehow talked my wife and kids into letting me go through detox via immersions in two tennis camps. First, Nick Bolletieri's, in Sarasota, Florida; then Vic Braden's, in Coto de Caza, California.

    About Bolletieri's I'll simply say: you can find someone else to tell you that he is a great guy. My stint there toughened and toned me up. Plus, I got to see a newly arrived little blond-ponytailed girl from Russia who was walloping the ball, and who I have always assumed/ wanted to believe was the just-off-the-boat Maria Sharapova.   

    About Vic Braden I will say that he seemed to be a born teacher and evangelist, and was someone I wanted to stay in touch with over the years. In the September, 1994 issue of this magazine, I wrote about going to both camps. I can't give you a link to the article, since it's from that twilight zone before our articles were on line (yet is not yet far enough into the recesses of history to put online for antiquarian purposes). In that piece I said that while Bollettieri's operation was devoted to prodigies and couldn't quite conceal its disdain for adult plodders like me, Vic Braden—who, in contrast to Bollettieri, was a huge, in-person presence at his camp—seemed excited by the idea of dealing with mediocre players, because there was so much more he could teach us.

    An article I wrote two years later, called "Throwing Like a Girl," is online and talks about Vic Braden's concept of the "kinetic chain" as the key to many successful athletic movements, from golf or baseball swings to tennis strokes to throwing any kind of ball. I got the feeling around him that he loved teaching tennis as a subset of his love for teaching in general, which in turn was a subset of his fascination with looking into how people could make the most of their opportunities and potential.

    As you will have guessed by this point, I am saying all this because I have just heard that Vic Braden died two days ago, at the age of 85. He was a genuinely accomplished, deep, influential, loving and loved man, who deserves to be noted by people who were not around during his media heyday, and to be taken more seriously by people who are aware only of his corny on-air routines. You can read some tennis-world appreciations of him here, here, and here. Although I haven't found any of his 1970s-80s TV appearances on line, these instructional videos give a feel for his style. The third is about his approach as applied more broadly than just to tennis technique.

    On the low volley:

    On the forehand backswing:

    On changing the backhand, but really about change in general:

    And, why not, a surreal moment from a Davis Cup match in Ecuador featuring Arthur Ashe:

    My sympathies to his family, and my gratitude for having known him.

  • How the Boy Scouts Are Adapting to Modern American Life

    A local example of a century-old organization finding a new place and role for itself

    An earlier era's vision of the idealized Scout, outside BSA headquarters in Texas (Tim Sharp/Reuters)

    Yesterday I mentioned one of the ongoing and heartening aspects of our American Futures visits: the ways towns small and large are re-knitting the informal social fabric whose presence creates "community" and whose absence means atomized, mutually suspicious existence. Yesterday's example was the expanding role of libraries, with an example from Columbus, Ohio.

    Today's installment: the Boy Scout movement, and the ways it has adapted willingly and otherwise to a changing America. John Tierney has a very interesting report from Allentown, Pennsylvania, which puts the evolving Scouting organization there in the larger context of academic analyses of cities that do and do not maintain viable social-connection networks. If any of these themes is relevant to you, or if you did (like me) or did not (like John, as he explains) spend some portion of your life as a Boy or Girl Scout, please check it out.

  • Re-knitting the Frayed Social Fabric: What Libraries Can Do

    As Ohio goes, so goes the nation—or at least we can hope so in this case.

    Entrance to the main library in Columbus, Ohio, a city that is putting the "Open to All" motto into effect (Deborah Fallows)

    The more we travel to different parts of the country in our American Futures project, the more we're impressed both by local idiosyncrasies and by broad emerging patterns we hadn't fully anticipated. In the second category would be developments like these, among others:

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  • Urban Comeback Stories in 2 Swing States

    Tales from two cities, plus the secret of the writing life

    Franklinton, a now-depressed neighborhood that Columbus is trying hard to bring back (John Tierney)

    During this past week, while I have been head-down on a long magazine story, John Tierney has done two very interesting posts in our American Futures series about similar-but-different revitalization efforts in two older cities in two adjoining states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.*

    (I am sure it shows something embarrassing about what a lifetime's interest in politics has done to my brain, but the most obvious bracket I can think of that contains Ohio and Pennsylvania is "swing states," so I'll go with that.)

    More »

  • Why Obama Should Say Very Little About Hong Kong, and Other Protest Readings

    What looks "strong" to the Washington commentariat would only weaken the demonstrators' position

    Students in Hong Kong (Reuters)

    Following this item last night, three more useful things to read about the drama unfolding in Hong Kong:

    1) "Why Obama should keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Ben Carlson—who is a much-missed former Atlantic staffer, and in recent years a resident of Hong Kong and Beijing—underscores this crucial point. What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign "interference" or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend.

    Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama's "weakness" or "passivity" or reliance on "leading from behind." Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there.

    More »

  • 'On the Other Side of the Shenzhen River'

    A man born in Kunming reflects on Hong Kong, and cries.

    Hai Zhang

    My friend Hai Zhang, who is originally from Kunming and whose writings and photos you can see more about here, sends this picture just now from across the Shenzhen River that separates Guangdong Province, in mainland China, from Hong Kong. He writes:

    On the other side of the Shenzhen River, I feel shamed, I cry and cry.  I think you know what I am crying for and what I am shamed of.

    For now, as the National Day Holiday dawns in Hong Kong and across China, three reading suggestions:

    1) "Against My Fear, I See That You Hope," a message from a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to her students who have taken to the streets in protest. This post, by Denise Ho, conveys how unusual it is for this movement to arise in Hong Kong, and the mixture of admiration and foreboding in many people's minds:

    As I listened to you, I was and am fearful. During the rally on Monday my eyes followed one of you, my own student, as he spoke on the stage. Was it less than two years ago that he was one of the silent ones in class? When had he grown so tall, so articulate? And where had that beard come from? As I watched you tremble with the rightness of your words, with the fury of the wronged—when you shouted that you would make the Chinese state come to its knees—something clutched my heart with fear. At that moment I suddenly felt old, in a way that wrinkles and grey hair have not chilled me. When I was young, I too had many dreams.

    I am afraid for you, and as I told my friends on Saturday it is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury—although events since Sunday have shown that perhaps I should fear this too. More than this, I am afraid of what happens if and when the world you hope to create does not come to be.

    2) "China Strikes Back," by Orville Schell for the New York Review and China File, gives more reason for the foreboding. Orville Schell is a longtime close friend, and he has known more about China, for a longer time, than I ever will. (He and John Delury also recently wrote a very good book about China's rise, Wealth and Power, which is newly relevant.) His conclusion is darker than I'm willing fully to embrace now. But this article is important background to what you see unfolding in Hong Kong.

    3) Henry Farrell on the limits of "explanatory" journalism, on Monday in The Washington Post. I'm all for explanatory journalism, which is part of what The Atlantic has always been for. But in its latest incarnation it's both highly valuable, when writers can add new data—or reporting-based interpretations—and suspect, when writers feel the need to "explain" events in which they're mainly working at second-hand remove. It's an adjustment each wave of journalistic improvement goes through.

    All the more reason to pay attention to those explaining, from on the scene. Including Gady Epstein in The Economist, Emily Rauhala in Time, the WSJ's Real Time Blog, the NYT and WaPo on-scene coverage, and more.  


    I'm not on-scene, but an observation from having been there over the years:

    It would be wonderful to think that the PRC leadership would take the soft-power, high-road route out of this confrontation. It could recognize the maturity and responsibility of the newly politically aware Hong Kong populace. It could cannily assess the advantages to China of "controlling" Hong Kong while letting it continue to operate with rule of law, uncensored Internet, untrammeled media, free universities, transparent financial markets, and all the other attributes of a first-world center. With a light hand, the PRC government could have it both ways.

    But that's not likely. Any more than it's likely that the current leaders will throw the doors to China open to the world's journalists—which would be the best way to advance the country's image, given that more interesting/good is underway there than depressing/bad—or that they'll uncensor the Internet or realize that they're magnifying their problems in the long run by jailing, for life, a moderate, intellectual leader of the Uighur cause. This is why it is hard to imagine a pleasant ending to the currently inspiring movement in Hong Kong.

    I could say that the Chinese leadership is on a self-destructive course—but, hell, I have said that about America at countless stages. For now, thanks to Hai Zhang; consider reading these items; and most sincere admiration and best wishes to the people of Hong Kong.

  • A Day on the Road: A Story-Map View of Allentown

    What you find is usually not quite what you were looking for.

    Map by John Tierney and Deb Fallows

    The real reason to be a reporter is the chance it offers to see, ask about, and prowl around the world. For more on the high concept of the reportorial satisfaction in seeing, you can check this post from the summer.

    This has been a special satisfaction of our American Futures travels over the past year. The joy and the terror of the process is showing up in a place with a few questions in mind and a few contacts lined up, and then following leads, backing out of dead ends, and spending whole days in pursuits you hadn't foreseen. Inevitably you discover that the preparation was essential, but that inevitably the most intriguing questions are the ones you hadn't even thought to ask before you made the trip.

    More »

  • 'When We Felt Threatened, We Opened Umbrellas and Raised Our Hands'

    A message from Hong Kong

    Reuters

    From a reader in Hong Kong:

    I was at the uneventful (if tense) Legco [Legislative Council] demonstration on Saturday as well as last night's demonstrations between Causeway Bay and Central.

    It was as much depressing as, ultimately, uplifting. When I was incapacitated by a blast of pepper spray, I somehow found myself being reverse crowd-surfed to a safe area.

    There, a young girl cradled my head and poured water into my eyes. Some others wiped the chemicals off my arms and legs. When they went on to help the next injured person, an old woman kept watch over me, speaking soft Cantonese and plying me with all manner of snacks and drinks. These were complete strangers. Later, when we scrambled to avoid the first tear gas attack, a small band of people committed to staying put and helping the crush of smoke victims climb over the concrete barriers and into safety.

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  • Iron Pigs Rising

    Another strand in the fibers of civic connection

    Warming up before the Pigs-Chiefs night game, Coca-Cola Park (James Fallows)

    It turns out that the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs aren't really that good at baseball, at least this year. They lost two of the three games we saw at Coca-Cola Stadium last month—a day-night doubleheader on a Saturday, and a night game the following Monday, all against the Syracuse Chiefs and all in idyllic, clear high-sky conditions. A few weeks later at the end of the season, the Chiefs were at the top of the triple-A International League Northern division, and the poor Iron Pigs were 15.5 games back in last place.

    Maybe we're not good-luck omens for plucky minor-league teams. Earlier in the summer, our Duluth Huskies, of the Northwoods league, took a 9-7 lead over the Eau Claire Express into the bottom of the 8th, only to lose by the improbable 11-inning score of 16-9.  (That is what giving up 7 runs in the top of the 11th will do to a team.) Happily, the Huskies ended up tied for first in their league.

    But we couldn't feel too bad about the Iron Pigs' loss. Although we loyally cheered for them, the visiting Chiefs are the AAA-farm team of our local rampaging Washington Nationals, so from our perspective it was a win either way.*

    (The Iron Pigs are part of the Phillies organization.) And we got to take part in one of the civic institutions meant to be part of a revived Allentown and greater Lehigh Valley.

    Deb Fallows describes the game, the team, the stadium, and the idea behind all of them in a new post in our American Futures series. You can read it here. Below you can see that post's author, in the white skirt, looking on from the centerfield lawn/stands as Kai Ryssdal (green shirt) and his Marketplace team interview Lee Butz (white shirt) who built the stadium.

    And if you're still wondering about the Allentown spirit, please check out this city video, produced earlier this year and featuring many of the people you've heard about in our dispatches so far, and a few more to come.


    Personal note: for the past ten days, and the ten+ days to come, I have been and will be heavily preoccupied with a big print-magazine project. Look forward to returning to this beat.

    * Similarly: From my parochial perspective, this is the most satisfying baseball season in a long time. The Eastern division leaders are the Nationals and the Os, for whom my kids grew up cheering in the pre-Nationals era. In the West, it's the LA Dodgers with whom I grew up, and the Angels. The Central people can fight it out. Only imperfection is that the As, who we cheered on when living in Berkeley, haven't yet made it. 

  • Water, Water, Everywhere: Lehigh Valley Edition

    Allentown deals with fiscal problems from its past with a bet about water supplies for its future

    Fountain in Allentown's Cedar Creek Park (John Tierney)

    Water is increasingly the theme that connects the world's big energy, environmental, and climate-related questions. Fracking in the United States, China, and elsewhere is creating new, cheaper, potentially cleaner energy sources; but it consumes a lot of water, and might pollute even more. Air pollution is the most visible (literally) environmental disaster in China, but maintaining water supplies for the country's cities, factories, and farms may be an even greater challenge. Water-level rise is one of the most feared future effects of climate change, and ocean-water acidification in the here-and-now is already an emergency for coral reefs, shellfish, and so on. Then we have the business, agricultural, and environmental consequences of the California drought. (Which is an occasion to mention: Our California High-Speed Rail series is about to resume, and will be the next feature in this space. I have been wrestling with a big print-magazine article and American Futures travels since the previous installment.)

    And even the verdant Lehigh Valley, home to Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and environs, is dealing with water issues. In "The City That Turned Its Water Into Cash," the latest American Futures installment, John Tierney describes the unusual bet the Allentown city government made about solving the pension burdens it had inherited from its past, with water supplies for its future. It's a local version of privatization steps taken in other cities, most famously or notoriously with Chicago's decision to lease-out the right to run its parking meters. John explains the logic behind it and why the city leaders in Allentown considered this a necessary next step in their area's revival. For more details, please see his post.

     

  • First Bowling Alone, Now Vaulting Together

    From Tocqueville onward, observers have thought that informal organizations held America together. Are any of them left?

    Motivational billboard at the Parkettes gymnastics training center in Allentown, Pa. (Deborah Fallows)

    Whether in admiring ways (from Tocqueville to Frank Capra) or disparaging / mocking (from Babbitt onward), observers of America have marveled at the informal organizational fabric that held this disparate country together. Elks and Rotary, volunteer fire departments and Junior League, Cub Scouts and Brownies, PTA and library board, neighborhood sports, of course religious organizations—these all typified and governed America as much as its formal governing structures.   

    Over the past 20 years, Robert Putnam has been the best-known exponent of the idea that this essential fabric has atrophied. First in 1995 in the Journal of Democracy and then five years later in the book Bowling Alone, Putnam argued that America had become a group of atomized, dis-connected individuals who owed nothing to one another and had become a crowd rather than a society.

    More »

  • Made in America, Again
    Álvaro Dominguez

    Made in America, Again

    Three big trends that could shape the future of high-tech manufacturing—and the middle class

  • The 100% Renewable-Powered City: Too Good to be True?

    Balancing substance and symbolism in the movement toward cleaner energy sources

    Solar panels outside the Burlington-area headquarters of Renewable NRG Systems, which we wrote about last year ( James Fallows )

    Yesterday I mentioned the latest accomplishment of Burlington, Vermont. Previously the site of such implausible-sounding but actually true achievements as "an airport that is pleasant" and "a newspaper that is doing well," it now boasted a "100% renewable" city energy supply.

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    A reader in China, who is himself in the clean-energy business, writes to dispute the claim—really, how much of a step forward it represents. First he highlighted these parts of the AP story about the renewable claim. The story said:

    "[The local utility companies do not contend] that each of their customers' lights comes from renewable sources all the time. When the wind isn't blowing and the rivers are low, they will buy power from traditional sources that include electricity generated from fossil fuels.

    "When the resources are right, though, they get more than they can use, and the difference is sold to other utilities. Over time, they sell more than they buy."

    The story then quoted an energy expert on the effects of the plan:

    "They are selling the renewable energy credits to customers in other states. Those customers have the renewable and clean energy benefits of that power," [one expert] said. "Simply using accounting measures to make claims about clean energy doesn't get us there."...

    [A professor at the University of Vermont] said reaching 100 percent was a big achievement.

    "It definitely makes me feel better here at UVM to know that every time I turn on a light switch or fire up my computer or anything else, to know that it's 100 percent renewable," he said.

    This reader in China (a Westerner) begs to differ:

    I hope I do not sound too didactic in pointing out that the reason we care about renewables at all is to affect (for the better) the physical world:

    1.      Moving an existing dam from one owner to another [which is part of what Burlington did] is an example of something that has no effect on the physical world. The buyer gets the renewable energy, the seller and its customers lose it and need to replace that lost renewable energy with something else. To claim this as any sort of improvement in the physical environment is basically just a shell game.

    2. As noted in the articles, all these renewables (except perhaps the hydro) have to be backed up by non-renewables, so the net impact in the physical world is an increase in total installed net electric power generating capacity – not a decrease.

    What is missing to make renewables the boon they really could be is widespread, cost-effective power storage, so that the renewables can provide power on demand without needing backup from fossil fuel plants.  People are working on this.  The others of us need to recognize how vital it is.

    3. It is a basic rule of renewables that if you sell to someone else the renewable energy credits (or attributes) associated with your generator, then you can’t claim to have renewable energy yourself from the same generator.  The reason for this is obvious – double-counting would otherwise be rampant, because the buyer of the credits is claiming to be using renewable energy as a result. What you sell to the buyer is the right to say “I am using renewable energy.”  You can’t both sell that right and assert it yourself.

    4.      It sounds as if Burlington has cleverly tried to deal with this by a sort of renewable energy credit (or attributes) arbitrage process – buy low, sell high.  So they can sell their cake and claim it, too.  As a skeptic in the article correctly suggests, we are not going to improve the physical environment with accounting.

    5.      The delusion of the fellow turning on his computer and “knowing” that the power always comes 100% from renewables is the reason all this matters, in the real world.  He’s happy, when in truth he should only be somewhat relieved at a marginal improvement and mildly appreciative of what would seem (from this article at least) to be his utility’s admirable efforts to improve conditions in the real world while considerably overstating (or over-implying/suggesting) the net real-world environmental impacts of those efforts (I think the apt word here might be “puffery”).

    6.      It is only the latter (the puffery) that troubles me, since I think that – society-wide – it encourages the computer-guy delusion, and makes it sound as if cleaning up our electric power supply is all going to be much simpler and less expensive than is the case.  It is going to be terribly difficult, it is going to be expensive, and yet it is urgent, because the world is well along the path to being cooked.  Lulling people into any sort of complacency is just plain counter-productive.  

    Offered for the record, as perspective on what this announcement indicates—and does not. More ahead on city- and state-level efforts to make real progress in climate and energy issues, at a time when legislative steps at the federal level seem impossible.

  • Greening Up in Burlington, Rocking Out in Allentown

    As American government seems ever more paralyzed at the national level, cities continue to find ways to grapple with real problems. Two more examples.

    A rustbelt city trying to recreate itself: downtown Allentown, Pa., two weeks ago (John Tierney)

    1) Green Power in Vermont. Last year our American Futures team reported on several almost-too-good-to-be-true aspects of life in Burlington, Vermont. A print newspaper that was thriving. A commercial airport that was actually pleasant. A brewery whose output was so much in demand that it rationed sales to give everyone a chance. A strong business-and-social-responsibility culture, including in clean tech and info tech. Advances in traditional higher-ed but also in a "career-oriented" approach. An ability to absorb refugees and immigrants. Overall, effective governance and public-private collaboration, from the era of its onetime Socialist mayor Bernie Sanders to the current Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger.

    Today, a significant news announcement via this AP story by Wilson Ring. It begins:

    Vermont's largest city has a new success to add to its list of socially conscious achievements: 100 percent of its electricity now comes from renewable sources such as wind, water and biomass....

    "It shows that we're able to do it, and we're able to do it cost effectively in a way that makes Vermonters really positioned well for the future," said Christopher Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service.

    A lot of things are easier to do in a small state like Vermont than in a big, sprawling, quarrelsome country like America as a whole. Still, these things don't happen on their own, and this is another reason to offer congratulations.

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    2) Eagles Power in Allentown. As we previewed last week (and as was covered on Marketplace), this past Friday night was a huge watershed for the government, businesses, and people of Allentown, Pa. That was when the high-stakes effort to revive the tattered downtown had its debut event, with a concert by The Eagles at the new PPL Arena.

    How did it go? Our friends at the Morning Call have a number of generally upbeat stories. For instance, here's the way their review of the concert itself was played on the Morning Call's site.

    And here was the connection between the band and the town. The Eagles group, John Moser wrote,

    which once was such a mighty force in music that it sold 60 million albums in the 1970s alone and became the third-best-selling band of all time, is back on tour after just one studio album in 35 years and no Top 10 songs since 1980.

    That puts the band in much the same situation as Allentown — a city that is decades removed from its glory years and is looking to reassert itself.

    Both were pretty impressive at the arena's first event Friday.

    For other local coverage, you can start here or here, which includes a charming video of people who had come back into the downtown for the first time in years. This latter story includes a variety of reactions like this:

    "I used to come here as a kid, but there was never any reason to come back unless you had jury duty," [a suburbanite] said. "This is a lot nicer than I've heard. They've really cleaned it up. I can't believe this is Allentown."

    Allentown still has a million problems and a very long way to go, as people there are aware and as we will discuss. But to kick off the new season of American Futures coverage, please check out John Tierney's new post on the unusual tax plan that lies behind the downtown revival, and the people in state and local government behind that plan. He explains how it's different from urban-incentive programs in place anywhere else, the tradeoffs it involves, and why—in his view, as a one-time political-science professor* and a communitarian in outlook—he thinks it is a positive step.

    More to come later this week, as we unveil a new look for this series. For now, good wishes to people working hard for their communities from Burlington to Allentown.


    *Small-world department: When John Tierney was in graduate school at Harvard, his dissertation supervisor was none other than the late James Q. Wilson, who is famous in and beyond Atlantic precincts as co-author of the hugely influential article "Broken Windows." John studied urban politics and has been wrestling with these issues for a long time.

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