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 Endless Civil War, Continued

    "Should the people in Mississippi stay poor? I would suggest taking a serious look at the answer 'yes'." So says a reader who lives elsewhere.

    Sharecroppers in Georgia, just before World War II. Are their grandchildren better off, because industries have arrived? Hint: my answer is Yes. ( Farm Security Administration, 1941 )

    Over the past few weeks, my wife Deb and I have been reporting on Mississippi's efforts to move itself up from the bottom in rankings of educational achievement, and similarly to move itself up from being overall the poorest state in the nation.

    Question for the day, from readers: whether any success it achieves will necessarily come at the expense of other places, especially in the North. Of course movement in rankings is by definition zero-sum. The real question is whether greater prosperity for Mississippi has to mean less somewhere else.

    For background, here are some installments about the Mississippi educational efforts: one,  two, three, and four. (No matter what region you're from, be sure to read at least the first couple of essays by students in that final, fourth item.) And these on industrialization: one, two, three, and four

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
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    Now, a note representative of several I've received. It concerns how to think or talk about economic activities in the non-union, low-wage, politically conservative, ever-shadowed-by-racial-injustice (cf. Ta-Nehisi Coates) areas of the Deep South. Here goes, quoted in full for context: 

    I have an odd relationship with your blog. I read it avidly and yet I find myself alienated. You prick my despair about the country, in fact. In your most recent entry in the 'Lo and Behold, Industry in Mississippi' series, you asked for feedback and so here is a little exploration of my vexed relation to your work and perspectives.

    First off, I'm a native of a Rust Belt city and much of my family originally migrated here from the South. In fact they were slaveowners who left the South to industrialize the North - and they were very successful at it, probably even a factor in the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War.

    But I grew up in a different time - the time of decline of industry. I grew up with the decades of desolation and loss. I understand the impact of abandonment, wholesale and profound, that has infected the Rust Belt in the post war era. I know the economic decline of Rust Belt cities to be deeply imprinted with American racism as well as the relentless and devastatingly effective rightwing campaign against unionization. The deindustrialization of the North cannot be separated from the success of Southern style politics and ideologies over the last 40 years. The American people have suffered serious economic harm as a result.

    So forgive me if Joe Max Higgins does not seem charming. To be honest my chief reaction to reading this piece was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy. I think the South should be quarantined, politically and economically. They suck on the federal tit whilst fanning resentment of the poor, among many (many!) other political sins.  (The best thing about the Dixiecrats is that there were less effective nationally when stranded within the Democratic Party than they are today, when they control Republican ideology and the Supreme Court. )

    I wasn't satisfied by your reply to this comment [from another reader, a man in New York]:

    "The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class."

    You didn't address the above point. The South has had a baleful influence. Perhaps what is in process is the lasting destruction of American broad based prosperity, thanks in no small part to rise of Southern political values. There are no signs of a turnaround for most in this economy - it is only getting worse. Yet continuing on this path would be tragic. It would fundamentally undermine the whole American experiment. I would like your series a lot more if you addressed this.

    I keep telling myself I won't do this any more, but I wrote right back to the woman who sent the message:

    I have a reaction of "And therefore, what....?" to your views.

    Suppose one, like me, is in favor of unions, is in favor of more progressive taxation and a fairer economy, is against what many Southern politicians now stand for, has written endlessly about the "new nullification" menace, and so on. Should I say: "Well, I hope these people in Mississippi stay poor?"

    I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you'd like to do to, or with, Mississippior St Marys, Georgia, or Greenville, SCas the action part of your view. 

    To which she replied: 

    As to your question - should the people in Mississippi stay poor? I would suggest taking a serious look at the answer 'yes'. If industrial jobs in Mississippi are in fact a part of a national race to the bottom and if that race is destructive to the larger good then the race itself should be stopped. And one consequence of that could be a slow down in the industrializing of Mississippi. 

    I don't enjoy making careless arguments and there are a number of 'ifs' in the above paragraph. The point is that there is a larger picture. What conventions, regulations, and laws enable corporations to make states compete against each other for their investment? Some of that should simply be outlawed. Some of that sort of thing is actually disallowed under trade pacts - why should it be allowed for states?

    It's taken decades to build an economy of downward mobility. Financial deregulation, corporate trade deals, and union busting has required not only policies but ideology and economic theory. It has been a bipartisan effort and academics and the media have contributed. Virtually all of the conventional thinking in my view is tainted by this history. But the issues we are discussing impact the real economy of jobs and wages. We must not avoid painful disputes even though bringing up these difficult issues is a downer in the context of a feel good story of a poor corner of the country doing better. 

    If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll indulge a further word about the ongoing juggling act for a writer like me. Over the past three-plus decades, in at least four of my books and at least a dozen long Atlantic articles, I've tried my best to apply reporting, reading, thinking, and observation to questions of exactly this sort. The movements of industries among nations; the movements from region to region within a nation; the forces that make whole economies seem to progress or stagnate; the forces that are uniquely necessary if America is to seem "fair"; the burdens of history, race, public policy, and private institutions in shaping American mobility, and so on.

    I know that I've written all this stuff. Most readers, probably including this one, don't. But if I say, "go read 'How the World Works' or More Like Us or 'How America Can Rise Again,'" I sound insufferable. And if I don't, I'm left with people who "are not satisfied" because I haven't dealt with a topic at a time when they happened to be noticing or in a post they're seeing on its own. As the world's problems go, it's small. But it is one I have to think about it.

    Enough about me! Let's turn now to a reader in Florida. He writes: 

     I agree with you —I wouldn't lead every Mississippi piece I wrote with a racial disclaimer either. After all, TNC's writing has focused as much on Chicago as Mississippi—which makes sense because parts of Chicago are historically, literally Mississippi north. 
     
    That said, two things about two of these posts really struck me and both relate to the historical relationship of Missisippi and Chicago. Key quote from your post:
     
    "Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," [Joe Max Higgins] told me.
     
    In 1914, with the onset of World War I, European immigration halted overnight. By 1915, booming, shorthanded northern industry was "buying" southern black farm labor and creating the Great Migration—and changing America, north and south, forever.
     
    Southern government and industry (mostly agriculture) fought with every legal and extra legal tool it had to halt the migration. "The southern narrative was you will cripple our society by stealing our niggers." It was routine for southern local governments to ban labor recruiting; to ban migration itself through brutally enforced vagrancy laws. My hometown in Florida passed an ordinance in 1916 requiring a $1,000 license for any recruiter seeking black labor. Not getting the license was a crime.
     
    You ask, don't people know these things
     
    No, they don't. They know about water fountains and epithets. They know nothing about the migration that made both redlining and the successful civil right movement possible by breaking up the status quo.
     
    In my opinion, WWI and the Great Migration are the two most important forces of 20th century. One caused the other. They are, I think, without question the most important racial forces of the 20th century. And we as a country know nothing about them. We know so little about them that an economic developer in Mississippi doesn't see the exquisite historical irony in the South "buying" the industry that the north used to buy its labor and grow the industrial power of the US. 

                                                                  ***

    This is plenty to chew on for now. I was tempted to add a "This I Believe!" summary of my economic views, but I am going to save that for tomorrow. I have actually written it already, so I will actually post it after I let it cool.

    I will though close with one transition point, tied to the first reader's note. I respect her clarity in following her logic to its conclusion. Still, I completely  disagree that the rest of the country might have stayed richer and fairer if our poorest state stayed dirt poor. While I'm at it: I also don't think America would be richer, fairer, or happier if China were still dirt poor. That's a topic-sentence assertion for now. Supporting sentences soon.

  • Everything Old Is New Again, and Vice Versa: The Predicament of the Press

    Two in-the-moment writers wrestle with two for-the-ages questions.

    Detail from illustration of 19th-century Grub Street, showing the natural condition of journalism. ( Wikipedia )

    For as long as there have been readers, writers, and publishers, and even before people may have used those terms or the word "journalism," the business of providing information about the world has wrestled with two big, related questions. They are the questions that in 2014 go by the names "monetization" and "traffic."

    The monetization question: How do people who gather information, assess and analyze it, present and illustrate it, and make it available to the public pay their bills? How do they rent and heat the offices where they work, buy the printing presses (old) or servers (new) they need to get their product out, pay for their own food and clothes and medical expenses? In general, how does an information system match its output—"news" in all senses—with revenue that lets it pay for necessary inputs of every sort.

    The traffic question: How does a news organization set, re-set, and adjust every day the balance between sizzle and steak, between glitter and grist, between what's fun to know and what's important to know? News has to always be both and can't ever be just one. If it's just froth and eye-candy, it's not news but entertainment. If it's just worthy lectures, it's boring and goes unseen. Professors can make students read their books. Reporters and editors can't. Thus everything in our business is, and must be, up for constant re-assessment and change. 

    The questions are related: solving the traffic issue can help solve the monetization problem. And they're different: a rich owner, or a non-profit organization, may decide to monetize something despite low traffic. Beyond these two is the real question of journalism: what we now call the "content" issue, of how you discern and explain what's important and true.

    Four years ago in the magazine I did a story about how that era's Internet was changing our business. ("How to Save the News.") Three years ago I did a followup on how things looked as of 2011. ("Learning to Love the [Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable] New Media.")

    As for the 2014 version of the eternal questions, let me recommend two recent essays in the consistently interesting LadyBits collection of Medium. LadyBits itself is about to close down move away from Medium, a year after it began—which illustrates the problem these essays describe. But please check them out in detail.

    • "Your Newfangled Media Algorithms Are Bullshit," by Erin Biba. Yes they are. Just as it would have been bullshit a generation ago to say that TV Guide was 20 times better than The New Yorker because it had 20 times more subscribers.  Sample of Biba's approach to the eternal monetization/traffic questions:

    [W]hile I’m all in favor of this new world of media startups, where truly well-intentioned people are trying to figure out how the heck to make money from journalism on the Internet, I just need to step up right now and call bullshit on pretty much all the algorithms. Cause you guys just aren’t understanding the importance of a good writer.

    • "LadyBits' First and Last Year on Medium," an envoi by its founder and editor, Arikia Millikan. Sample:

    It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case.... 

    Medium stopped curating a universal homepage where people browsing Medium.com would be exposed to the best writing on the site. That meant that the people who were coming across LadyBits content because it was good, who wouldn’t normally have been exposed because they weren’t searching for feminist tech perspectives, weren’t finding us. Our traffic fell by about 50%, as did our income.

    Naturally any comments like these from writers come across as special pleading. "We're doing great work. You should love us more!" But whether that's part of these writers' tone, or mine, these essays are raising today's version of the contradictions every one of our predecessors has wrestled with. We'll figure out some balance now, and then it will all change once again. 

  • Heavy Industry in the Mississippi 'Prairie': Why Are These Factories Here?

    "Live every second as if your ASS is on fire," and other words of wisdom.

    This is the story of a man, and a region, and of the tradeoffs that go into the modern movement of industries. What did it take to bring an advanced-tech steel mill, a helicopter factory, a drone plant, and a major new tire works to a corner of the country where the unemployment rate is very high and many educational and sociological indicators are very low? And how much better off is the region for the arrival of these new enterprises? What did it give up, and what did it gain?

    The region in question is part of the so-called "Black Prairie" of Mississippi and Alabama. That name refers to its soil type, as shown by the sweep of this map from the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University (which is in the region).

    The Black Prairie also coincides with the "Black Belt" of these two states in the historical and sociological sense of the term, a region with a high concentration of slave-labor plantations before the Civil War and of African-American population ever since then. One part of this Black Prairie has renamed itself the "Golden Triangle," as shown below and as reported in our previous dispatches. It's the area between the cities of Columbus, West Point, and Starkville, and it is where these new factories have come.

    From Wikipedia.

    The background on our story starts here, with a roundup of some of the industries that have come to the Golden Triangle. It continues here, on the near-impossibility of untangling the influences of history, international economic trends, institutional and corporate culture, and individual mistakes or insights in understanding why things "succeed" or "fail" in a given area. It continues here, about the particular burden of race in explaining American events in general and Mississippi developments in particular. It is complemented here and here, with reports by Deb Fallows on the ambitious educational efforts underway at a public school in the Golden Triangle. And it will continue this afternoon in a broadcast version on Marketplace and later with at least one more installment by me, about Mississippi's version of "career technical" education.

    On Marketplace today you'll hear about, and from, a Golden Triangle figure named Joe Max Higgins, along with his colleague Brenda Lathan and others. This is more about what they have done, and how, and to what effect.

                                                                      ***

    That's Higgins's license plate, at the top of this item. He obviously loves spelling out the "2EQLAST" joke: In the economic development business, coming in second equals coming in last. You get the deal, or you don't—and there's no reward for a near miss or giving it a good try. It's a subtler version of the standard signature line in his email messages: "Live every second as if your ASS is on fire."

    You've heard talk like this from any number of football coaches, and Higgins's talk about his region's prospect is very much that of a coach. Two examples, of many possibilities:

    •   On what he thought when he considered moving to the Golden Triangle from Arkansas, a dozen years ago:

    "When the headhunter called and said I want you to look at a position in Mississippi, I said you gotta be kidding me! I hear 'Mississippi,' and I hear poverty, despair, no future, and no hope for a future.

    "Then we drove through here, the azaleas were in boom; it was pretty. My wife said we should at least look the place over. We looked at what God gave 'em, and what they were doing with it. And I said, There's no reason in the world these folks aren't winning! But they're not."

    Within "they're not" was the whole range of local economic woes, from a starting point of low income and high unemployment, to a recent wave of factory closures among the low-tech, low-wage small firms that have moved to the South from the Depression era onward.

    Higgins went back to the headhunter. "I said, here’s what I want: Audited financial statements, budgets, all this kind of stuff. I spent weeks just looking at stuff. Came to conclusion, these guys should be hitting home runs, but they’re not even getting to the plate. That's an opportunity." So he signed on.

    •   On what has happened since then, Higgins showed us a very detailed chart of all the industries that have included the Golden Triangle in their site selection during his time here, the number that went ahead, what that meant in terms of capital investment and tax revenues, and what it's meant in jobs. To put it in perspective:

    "If you take it strictly on investment, deals we won versus deals we lost, we're batting .442! And some of those deals we lost are ones we said, go away, we're not interested. But now, in jobs, we're batting .241. So how good are we, really? Two-forty-one is maybe better than most, but it won't get you into the hall of fame, not unless you can play second base like a champ. But .442 will get you into the Hall!" And on to an argument about why the average had to go up.

    Everything about Joe Max Higgins's talk, walk, body language, and comportment is go, go, go; do, do, do. A recent profile of him by William Browning in the Columbus-based Catfish Alley magazine pointed out that Higgins, who is burly by anyone's standards, used to go through two six-packs of Diet Coke per day. Now he has backed down to just eating packs of an "energy powder" called Spark. Here he was earlier this month:

                                                                      * * *

    The Golden Triangle's first big win was its certification as a TVA "Megasite" ten years ago. The Megasite system was a way for TVA to speed investment within its region by pre-clearing certain sites as being project-ready. They had the infrastructure, they had the permits, they had enough contiguous land, and everything else. As a Federal Reserve report described them:

    The Tennessee Valley Authority coined the term in 2004 for sites in the TVA region that could be deemed worthy of large-scale development—1,000 acres in size, environmentally clean, and accessible to transportation and utilities, among other criteria.

    For more about the Megasite program, you can see this and this from the TVA; for more about what it meant to the Golden Triangle, you can see this, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. For instance, the headline of the Fed Reserve assessment is, "Megasites Spur Big Turnaround for Mississippi Region."  

    The point for now is that Higgins and his colleagues at the "Link" development organization for the Golden Triangle threw themselves all-in to the competition to be awarded Megasite status. As he put it:

    "The TVA was tired of every beanfield, cotton field, corn field in anytown USA saying, 'We're going to have the next Toyota-Nissan-Mercedes plant!' So they hired a prominent national consultant to design the criteria for certification.

    "Everybody showed up. The could be’s, the wannabes, the never-were's, and thought-they-were's, they all showed up." All the candidate regions were asked to provide simulations of how they would handle major new investments, and to provide specs on every economic, infrastructure, labor-market, and environmental consequence of economic growth.

    "They had a two-foot-high book of specs," Higgins said. "We worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. Optioning the sites, doing the soil borings, everything." To cut to the conclusion, ten years ago this August the TVA certified its first two Megasites. One was Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and the other was near the Golden Triangle airport in Columbus.

    "The worm turned then," Higgins told me. "That TVA decision was the inciting incident that changed this community forever. I’m serious. Before that, I’m working little projects. I’m working a sweet potato plant here, and a small, small automotive plant there. That was it. To be honest, when I took this job I thought I’ll hit a couple of singles, maybe a double, and then I’ll get a bigger better job somewhere else.

    "The Megasite was the incident that made us believe we could win."

    Soon after that, Higgins and his team got their first big commitment, with the $600+ million steel mill from SeverCorr, now called Severstal. Then they began applications for a second Megasite, which also succeeded. (The TVA has certified only eight in all, including the two in Columbus.) Then on through the list of other successful industrial recruitments, which in all have brought some $5 billion in total investment, and something like 5,600 new jobs, to an area where the unemployment rate, even with this new work, is still around 15 percent.

                                                                    * * *

    What has it cost, and what has it brought? I can't claim to offer the full reckoning, but here is a summary, for follow-up in another installment.

    •   It's not just money. The latest big investment news for the region is from Yokohama Tire, which is building a $300 million new plant near West Point, the most depressed part of the Golden Triangle area. It will employ 500 people when it opens next year, toward a planned total of 2,000.

    As part of the courtship process, Higgins's group arranged a site visit by the Yokohama corporate high command: helicopter tours of the area; green tea and hot, moist towels to refresh the visitors at each stop; galoshes to protect their shoes from the Black Prairie mud after a rainstorm.

    During the aerial tour, Higgins took Yokohama's chairman over the ruins of what had been for nearly a century the economic foundation of West Point. This was a meat packing plant, locally owned for decades by the Bryan family and then taken over by the firm that eventually closed it, Sara Lee. When it shut down it put fully a tenth of the city's population out of work.

    "I told the chairman [of Yokohama] that this was an area that placed a lot of stress on long-term relationships," Higgins told me. "People worked for Bryan for generations. When that plant left, it tore the heart out of the whole community. I said, you can be the phoenix rising up, for the next generations."

    Hokey, yes. But Higgins said that the helicopter then did several circles around the plant, while the chairman stared down at the devastation. "He looked over at me, and nodded," Higgins said. "I told the pilot, We can go now." (Below, a Google Earth screenshot of the now-being-demolished remains of Bryan/Sara Lee.)

    •   But it's largely money. Higgins says that the area doesn't offer, and the TVA and EPA won't condone, any waivers from environmental standards. And with the obvious exception of the flame-belching Severstal mill, the industries that are coming are relatively high-tech and clean.

    What it does offer is substantial state and county subsidy for infrastructure and construction costs, and tax breaks. For instance, here is the Federal Reserve's summary of what went into Severstal:

    From the state, the company got a $25 million grant and $10 million loan for infrastructure plus a bunch of tax credits and breaks on sales taxes and other state taxes. The county contributed the land, a $5 million infrastructure grant and a cut of about 40 percent on real estate taxes. Together, the incentives were worth about $100 million.

    Joe Max Higgins being interviewed for Marketplace, at
    the future Yokohama plant site.

    The PACCAR plant, which makes engines for one-tenth of the long-haul trucks you see on American roads, got similar incentives totaling about $40 million.

    •   Can these be worth it? The argument from Higgins and his LINK organization is that from the time groundbreaking begins on the plants, they are returning more money locally—city, county, state, school district—in direct payments than the (amortized) cost of these subsidies, apart from the eventual indirect effect of the jobs and spillover activities. After the ten-year mark, which the first plants are nearing, many of the tax benefits phase out. According to Higgins, Lowndes County, which is where most of the factories have located so far, will get $10 million in taxes from them this year, of a county budget totaling $40 million. The school district, he said, will receive another $13 million.

    Joe Max Higgins has made the "incentives more than pay for themselves!" argument so often, and so publicly, in such detail, for so many years that I assume it would have been debunked if it was hyped or untrue. "Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," he told me. "That might work if you were talking about a company that is not very sophisticated and doesn't have a lot of resources. But your Nissans and your Toyotas and your Airbus? You think they're going to sacrifice their business for some little tax deal? That's bullshit."

    * * *

    Who is being helped? The full answer is beyond my ken. Here are two things I could observe.

    •   The biggest industrial employers, Severstal and PACCAR, say the racial balance of their employees is "representative of the region." The region is slightly more black than white; on the visits I made—two to the steel mill, one to the engine factory—the workforce appeared slightly more white than black, but slightly rather than heavily. Certainly it was closer to being racially diverse in the fashion of a military unit, than being overwhelmingly white in the fashion of many corporations or, especially, high tech firms. This question is so consequential that I'll return to it, in talking about the role Eastern Mississippi Community College is playing in preparing underskilled local people of all races for forthcoming jobs at the Yokohama works.

    •   The median income in these areas ranges from slightly below to very far below the national level. As mentioned earlier, the median U.S. household income is around $50,000 per year. It's barely half that in much of West Point. Here's an interactive map showing income levels.

    The average earning for hourly employees at Severstal, according to Joe Max Higgins, is around $80,000 before benefits. At PACCAR it's less but still well above the median household income in the area. Some of the line employees I spoke with had come back to the area after holding jobs elsewhere. One I met had previously worked at Sara Lee and then came to the steel mill. Several others had always lived in the vicinity.

    "I'm not even interested in factories that aren't going to pay a lot more than people are already making here," Joe Max Higgins told me. "Why would I be? If you are going to create jobs at that level, you are forever dooming your area."

    He mentioned a conversation he'd had with the mayor of a small town in Tennessee. "I'll never forget when he told me, I can't wait for the blue jeans plant to close in town!' You never hear a politician say that. He said, 'We got to get those ladies to community college and get their skills up. I can't run my town on minimum wage.' I thought that was the deepest thing I ever heard."

                                                               * * *

    There are more ramifications to the saga, but these suffice for now. Let me know your major complaints and questions and I will try to address them in upcoming installments. Next up from Deb Fallows: the surprising story of the Palmer Home for Children, in Columbus.

  • Man Bites Dog: A Small Publisher Speaks Up on Amazon's Behalf

    The latest version of an argument that has been with us for a very long time.

    Portion of the cover of the book that has helped keep Random House going. (Wikipedia)

    I've long been wary of Amazon, for reasons that have come to a head with its highly publicized struggle with Hachette. This recent Atlantic item by Jeremy Greenfield lays out the stakes well. To summarize:

    In the short run, Amazon can argue that it's working purely "in the customer's best interest" by squeezing publishers to agree to its terms. In the longer run, the result will be a further destructive "de-bundling" of the book market and book industry, skewing the supply even more heavily to lower-risk blockbuster books.

    How is publishing "bundled"? One example: Over the past few years, the Random House empire has regularly praised heaven for the existence of E.L. James's Fifty Shades saga, which has underwritten a lot of other projects the house has supported. (Say, like this one.) The Amazon-vs.-publishers struggle is a version of the arguments about Wal-Mart's effects—"better" for customers day by day, much worse for traditional downtowns—or about lower-cost, mass-produced fast food. These big questions of measurable efficiency, versus other unmeasurable or longer-term components of social well-being, have been with our country from the start. (I went into them a lot in More Like Us.)

    But on the other side, here is a pro-Amazon note from a publisher. The author says that Amazon's radically more efficient business practices have been a boon to him, in his role as a small publisher (of DVDs), compared with traditional retailers or distributors. He writes:

    I am seeing the Amazon-ire over Hachette gathering steam in some quarters, and certain I share concerns (Oh wait, I was concerned about this years ago!)

    What I am not seeing is anyone talking about the actual dollars and cents, and offer the below as hard data on what our experience is with Amazon and other retailers and distributors....
     
    Like many, perhaps the majority of products on Amazon, our DVDs are sold under Amazon's consignment program. They are branded as Sold by Amazon, but as a matter of how the money actually changes hands, it's a consignment arrangement.

    As needed, Amazon sends us a stock up request for various numbers of our various titles. We pay shipping, but we do not pay storage in Amzon's warehouse.

    We set the MSRP [Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price], but Amazon sets the discount. Paradoxically(?) the faster a title is selling, the deeper Amazon discounts. My presumption is this is done algorithmically. We've seen our titles discounted anywhere from 0% to ~35%.

    Regardless of Amazon's discounting at the end of each month Amazon pays us 45% of MSRP. This is done automatically and a full accounting of sales, monies owed and paid is available online through our consignment retailer interface, which also gives us complete control over the product description and some (but sadly not sufficient) control over the product metadata.

    If our DVDs sat on Amazon's warehouse shelves too long Amazon would send them back to us at our cost, but this has never happened. We can also make stock-up requests if we think our inventory at Amazon's warehouse is insufficient to meet upcoming demand.

    By comparison, if we were to do business with Baker & Taylor or other "traditional" middlemen they would pay us no more than 40% MSRP, pay invoices in 90-180 days, over order titles and then back-charge us for returns.

    In short, Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options. I make no presumption that Amazon is 'the bad guy" in their dispute with Hachette, or even that there is a bad guy. If Hachette has a better deal somewhere else, they should take it.

    I assume that Hachette's retort would be: When certain players become dominant enough, it is cutesy rather than realistic to say "If you don't like our terms, go find a better deal somewhere else." No one else is in a position to offer comparable deals. Of course the history of technology is of "impregnably" dominant figures suddenly being disrupted. Anything anyone says about Amazon was said with 100 times more rancor about Microsoft a mere 15 years ago. This era too will presumably pass; the question is what gets disrupted or eliminated in the meantime.

    For now, I'll thank the reader for this side of the story. And I'll note that whenever possible I've been buying and ordering books from independent sellers; ordering electronic versions in the B&N Nook version or another ePub format rather than Amazon Kindle (each sluices into my iPad); and directing book-related links to the author's site, or the publisher's, or some local retailer's, rather than to the Amazon listing. All tiny gestures toward keeping the book-producing infrastructure diverse. 

                                                                   ***

    Update A reader writes in with a different experience and interpretation:

    Amazon is indeed a wonder and a terror. Our general merchandise (but mostly pool accessories and costumes) business has come to depend on Amazon for approximately 70% of our revenue. Not only has this driven prices (and profits) the rock-bottom, it can become devastating when they change their rules. Several times they have updated the data requirements for product listings without providing enough time for us to comply. The results have been hundreds or thousands of products "hidden" from their marketplace as we put other projects on hold to update these old listings.

    There's a lot of money to be made there. But in my experience they have very little regard for their merchants. Their domination of online retail feels very precarious, for them and merchants. But, hey, I guess consumers are able to buy products at 5% over wholesale.

  • Readings on Strategy: China and Its Islamic Issues

    Chinese suppression of a mainly Muslim region makes resistance there worse, which increases the suppression, which increases the resistance, and .... A familiar pattern in another locale.

    Students at Xinjiang Provincial University, in Urumqi, before the Han-Uighur ethnic violence there in 2009. Students are on the left, and their Mandarin-as-second-language teacher is at right. (James Fallows)

    Recent news out of China has involved crackdowns and seemingly looking-for-trouble international provocations, as mentioned here yesterday. The latest occasion for the crackdowns, including the scenes of jampacked subways that dominated many news shows yesterday, was the wave of recent terrorist violence in the vast western-frontier Xinjiang region of China. 

    Xinjiang is far closer to the Central Asian 'Stans than it is to Beijing or Shanghai, and its original dominant ethnic group is the mainly Muslim, ethnically Turkic Uighurs, who look more like the people you might see across the border in Afghanistan or Tajikistan than those in the rest of China.

    American coverage of violence in Xinjiang seems to alternate, switching between two simplifications we inevitably apply to foreign news. Sometimes attacks there are portrayed as part of worldwide jihad—this is a Muslim region, and during the Bush-Cheney era the U.S. joined China in classifying a major Xinjiang group as part of the worldwide terrorist threat. Sometime they are portrayed as part of dissident or regional resistance to central Chinese government control.

    In a new essay in the LA Review of Books, James Millward of Georgetown University, one of America's real experts on the region, explains the tangles of Xinjiang's situation. Both of the standard views are partly true, but both are mainly beside the point, he argues. For instance (spelling the name Uyghur):

    What is the relationship between the civil rights problem [for people in Xinjiang] and the terrorism problem? Are they linked? Some say so. Uyghur rights groups, while deploring the attacks, say that Chinese oppressive policies have led to the outbreak of Uyghur violence.

    The Chinese government opposes this view, arguing that the sources of religious extremism and terrorism are external and unrelated to its own policies.... 

    It’s likely that the truth lies in between: Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message....

    Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education, suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?

    I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem....

    Even while the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem. 

    The subject is likely to remain in the news, and Millward's essay is worth reading now and keeping on hand as a guide to the complexities. 

    For some previous installments, from when we were living in China and the Han-Uighur riots of 2009 were underway, please see thisthis, and this, with links to other posts.

  • The Civil War That Does Not End

    How to talk, in the 21st century, about the war that divided the country in the 19th century, and the racial patterns set up by slavery long before

    Students from the Mississippi School for Math and Science, performing historical re-enactment in honor of Emancipation Day.

    Two emails came arrived within minutes of each other over the weekend. Both have to do with the reports my wife Deb and I have been doing from the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi: the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. The reports started here, with a catfish fry; included this and this about schools and this and this about industry (and beer); and this about seeing small towns by air. There is more to come, from factories and from an orphanage and a college, plus a Marketplace report soon.

    The two letters I'm quoting now are long but worth reading back-to-back. The first is from a man who grew up in the area—Lowndes County is one of three counties in the Triangle—and now lives several states to the north:

    As a native of Lowndes County, MS and an alumnus of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, I wanted to let you know how thrilling it is to read the series of articles by you and your wife about my hometown and high school. I especially appreciate the clear lack of schadenfreude in the series so far. This is one of the few times in my adult life that I have had the privilege to read coverage of Mississippi in a national publication in which Mississippi was not used merely as a foil to highlight racial, social, or economic progress elsewhere. I understood perfectly what Joe Max Higgins meant by,"When Eurocopter came in, people started walking upright a little bit."

    The population and income maps included with the most recent article are excellent, illuminating, and depressing. I'm curious to see whether you will further explore the intersection of race and economy in the Golden Triangle. I would love to know whether the benefits of the economic development in the Golden Triangle have accrued to blacks as well as whites. Does the economic development help race relations or strain them? I assume it's a mixed bag, but I would love to hear more details.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
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    Those questions of race and economy are in store for upcoming installments. For the moment, let's turn to the second letter, from a reader in New York. He said he had read some but not all of our Mississippi reports, and also has read Ta-Nehisi Coates's justifiably praised article on reparations:

    [T]alking about the success of a few Mississippi towns in attracting industry where the average annual income is $14,000 and comparing this with the reparations article which provides a pretty severe indictment of Mississippi (not to mention Chicago, etc.) provides a hell of a contrast.

    The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class.

    When I travel in the south among my all white family and friends who never interact with anyone more ethnic than a Catholic, I am struck by how rigidly that part of the world is regulated into two societies. Not as if this does not occur in cooler climates. In New York, however, there is no room for that.

    Maybe I am missing the larger message in your series, and I know that you are averse to polemics, but I feel that glossing over the underlying original sin while applauding local civic restoration based on a depressed workforce and continuing segregation in schools and the workplace is not as helpful as you might like to be.

    I try to avoid the "Oh, yeah?!" temptation to send nasty instant feedback to emails, and generally succeed. You never get in trouble for the peeved message you don't send. In this case I wrote right back, testily. 

    I didn't dwell on one point of detail I thought was completely wrong, the "never interact with anyone more ethnic" part. Having just come back in Mississippi, where I had spent a fair amount of time in the civil-rights-era late 1960s*, I was reminded of how much more cross-racial minute-by-minute exposure people are forced to have in the typical small Southern town than the typical big Northern city. Obviously this does not mean that race relations are more "equal." My point is simply that the big-city phenomenon of seeing mainly people like yourself all day long is harder to pull off in a small mixed-race town.

    Instead I wrote back to say: Okay, would you like me to begin every dispatch with a reminder of Mississippi's troubled past? The Klan, the lynchings, Jim Crow? Don't you think people know this? He replied:

    No, I don't think people "know" this. I think most people have a very short view of history which basically includes only those things that happened in their immediate observable universe. I also think that there are about 60 million people in the South who know this perfectly well and either deliberately ignore it, blame the victim, don't care because "those people" are not part of their tribe or are deeply invested in perpetuating it and all of whom benefit from it directly and live with that guilt. Not to mention those who still do the work of the Secessionists.

    In the contrast between these notes are many of the themes and tensions of our politics now, and many generations in the past, and probably many generations to come.

                                                                       * * *

    As Ta-Nehisi Coates's article has underscored, we're dealing in the 21st century reverberations of divisions set up 300-plus years ago, in patterns of economics, agriculture, civic organization, and of course racially based slave-holding. Yesterday Andrew Sullivan posted a fascinating map reminding us how closely the blue/gray divisions of 150 years ago match the red/blue political divisions of today. Recently I posted a map showing that the parts of America where the highest proportions of African Americans live in the 21st century are the parts where Africans were brought to work as slaves several centuries ago. A reminder, via screenshot, with darker shadings meaning higher black proportions, and the three dots being the Golden Triangle.

    As an illustration of another kind of persistence, consider this Esri "swipe map," which shows racial makeup on one side and obesity rates on the other. Click on "Hide Intro" to see more of the map; zoom in to see county-by-county patterns. Darker shading on the right-hand map means higher African-American percentage; on the left-hand map, it means higher obesity rates. You'll see that in some parts of the country there's a strong correlation in the patterns; in others, not. (For instance, parts of Kentucky and West Virginia have relatively low black populations, and relatively high obesity rates.) 


     

    There are many books' worth of possible responses to the themes in these notes—as I am reminded by reading The Hamlet and Absalom, Absalom! for the first time since college. For now, two points only. One about journalism, and one about race.

                                                                       * * *

    The journalistic point involves what we are looking for, in Mississippi and the other places we are visiting for this American Futures project. Is it supposed to be a "balanced" or "comprehensive" view of America? No. 

    Through the years we were living in China, I never once imagined that my wife or I could offer a comprehensive view of what was going on. The country is too big, dynamic, unknowable, and contradictory for any sane person to dare that.

    The U.S. is more familiar and knowable, at least for me, than China. But it is no less contradictory and complex. So I don't imagine for a second that I can offer a "balanced" view of this country of any of the places where we have spent a week or two.

    But I can tell you things I didn't know before we got there. And by both design and happenstance, more of those have been positive than negative.

    • By design, because we have been looking for smaller cities or areas where turnarounds of one sort or another have been underway. Downtowns that have come back; new industries that have started up where older ones had closed; schools that prepared students for jobs, or mobility in the broadest sense; places that have retained or revived a "thick" sense of civic engagement. Finding and reporting on these places doesn't eliminate America's countless other problems. But does anyone not know about those countless other problems? To me, successes at the moment are more interesting, more instructive, more "news."
    • By happenstance, because every place we've been—including, notably, the town where I grew up—has provided some surprise we'd had no idea of before arrival. Let's be specific about Mississippi. If you already knew that there was a big industrial boom underway in eastern Mississippi; and that a Russian company making steel and a European company making helicopters had decided this was the place to do business; and that there was a school like MSMS in the nation's poorest state, producing students who wrote essays like this—well, you're ahead of me. Neither my wife or I had any idea of this before our first trip a few weeks ago.  

                                                                       * * *

    Now, the point about race, which is also the point about the Civil War and everything before and after.

    Start with the nationwide comparison: Americans know, or should, that racial unfairness, starting with slavery, is the country's original sin and its ongoing social and political axis. It was at the heart of our bloodiest war. Countless other things are going on in America, many of them not at all connected to race. But many, from the pattern of our cities to the growth of our prison-industrial complex to the nature of our schools, are still obviously related to our long racial history.

    We all know that, or should. But if some Chinese or German or Israeli sociologist shows up and says: "Here I am in America, and I observe that they have racial issues ..." Our natural response is: Thanks a lot for that great insight! That had never occurred to any of us. What can you tell us that's useful or new? As outsiders sometimes do, notably in this theme with An American Dilemma.

    So too with the American South. For someone like me to show up in Mississippi and begin every dispatch by saying, "Here I am in the South, and I observe that they have a history of racial injustice ..." does not get anyone very far. 

    What we can try to do is observe the ways the schools, the industries, the churches, the institutions are evolving and operating in this environment, and their effect on the various groups living there. Which will be the point of some upcoming installments.


    When not otherwise noted, any photos in our American Futures coverage are by me or my wife Deb Fallows, including the one at the top of this post.

    * For the record: I happen to have spent two years of my toddlerhood in Mississippi. During the Korean War my dad was a Navy doctor, and he was posted to what was then the naval hospital in Jackson. As a teenager I worked for several months in 1968 for the Southern Courier civil-rights newspaper. It was based in Montgomery, but I spent much of my time covering voter-registration and food-stamp-rights efforts in Mississippi and Alabama. 

  • Your 3-Letter Guide to the Latest News From China

    Those three letters are BA, and D.

    The Beijing subways are usually crowded, but not like this: Lines today at the northern end of subway Line 5, after new security measures were put in place. (Reuters)

    Lots of readers have written in to ask:

    Question 1) This episode of a Chinese boat ramming and sinking a Vietnamese craft, apparently inside Vietnamese waters, and apparently with rousing support of online commenters in China, sounds bad, doesn't it? Especially after the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, which followed expanded Chinese activities in the South China Sea and have raised tempers everywhere

    Answer 1) Yes, this is bad. China and Vietnam have a long, mutually suspicious history—a point overlooked by many Americans, given the Chinese-North Vietnamese collaboration during America's time in the vicinity. The last real war the People's Liberation Army fought was against Vietnam, and it lost very badly. (The Chinese suffered almost half as many casualties, in a few weeks' battle against Vietnam, as the U.S. did in its 10-plus years.) Presumably whoever is in charge on each side will find a way to calm this down rather than letting it unfold into another shooting war. Presumably.

                                                                       ***

    Question 2) This episode of Chinese fighters coming within 200 feet or less of Japanese military-surveillance planes sounds bad, doesn't it? Can't things go wrong when planes get that close?

    Answer 2) Yes, this is bad. Recall that a commercial-airline passenger recently reported a brush with death when two planes came within five to eight miles of each other. Recall too that when a Chinese fighter hit a U.S. military-surveillance plane early in 2001, it was a major source of tension between the U.S. and China—who are on lovebird-type terms compared with the current bitterness between China and Japan. No one outside China considers the People's Liberation Army Air Force pilots to be among the best-drilled or most precise aviators in the world. It is easier to imagine something going wrong here than not.

                                                                       ***

    Question 3) This Chinese decision to bar state-owned enterprises from dealing with U.S.-based consulting firms like McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group, on the pretext that they are spying, sounds bad, doesn't it?

    Answer 3) Yes, this is bad. It's obviously a tit-for-tat in response to last week's U.S. report that specific, named Chinese military officials had conducted commercial-secrets spying, not plain old fate-of-nations spying, against U.S. industrial firms.

    The Chinese are saying: You want to enlist companies in the game of nations? OK, we'll target your companies too! Few people outside China may have an idea of the scale of some of these consultants' work inside China—and it's not strictly commercial. Every analysis of China's mass-urbanization future refers to a huge 2009 McKinsey study on the topic, "Preparing for China's Urban Billion." During my reporting on China's aerospace ambitions and its environmental-cleanup efforts, I kept coming across references to influential reports by Western (mainly U.S.) consulting groups. Some of these were pro-bono, some for pay; presumably all are now taboo for the big, state-owned firms. This is not good for anyone. [For the record: I have many friends, and some relatives, who have worked for these consulting firms, notably including Dominic Barton, now the global managing director/big boss of McKinsey. We became friends during the time our families both lived in Shanghai.] 

                                                                       ***

    Question 4) This sweeping new security crackdown, especially in Beijing, in the run-up to the Tiananmen Square 25th anniversary and in the aftermath of the violence in Xinjiang—it sounds bad, doesn't it?

    Answer 4) Yes, this is bad, though it should be more understandable for Americans than the others. Maximum security-theater overreaction to episodes of anti-civilian terrorist violence is a path the United States pioneered with our policies through much of the 2000s. China's big cities obviously can't operate with this kind of security shutdown of their transit systems, as shown in the picture at the top of the post. But for the moment, this is also bad.

    As I've written a million times about China, the main fascination of the place is that its million-and-one contradictory realities are all simultaneously true. But at the moment, there's a higher proportion of the bad ones. As my friend Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican ambassador to China, observed:

     

  • Mapping America's Prospects, in Mississippi and Elsewhere

    Images that illustrate the challenges and opportunities Americans face region-by-region

    Richer (in blue), poorer (brownish), and poorest (lightest colored) areas of the deep South.

    On Friday, I introduced the work of Joe Max Higgins, Brenda Lathan, Raj Shaunak, and others who over the past decade have attracted some $6 billion worth of industrial investment to the "Golden Triangle" area of Eastern Mississippi. That post included screen shots from maps that were designed to illustrate a simple baseline point: the economic challenge facing the state of Mississippi as a whole, including the Columbus-Starkville-West Point area that makes up the Golden Triangle. Depending on how you measure, Mississippi comes in at or near the bottom of most state rankings economically. For instance, in median household income, subject of the first map below, it stands at #50 among the states.

    Now, with help from John Tierney, here are interactive versions of three maps that put the state's challenge in perspective.

    These maps, via the ArcGIS software from our partner Esri, are useful beyond their specific relevance for this state or the South. For one thing, they are zoomable. The more you click in, using the + button, the finer the resolution, until you end up seeing specific Census tracts and blocks. As you zoom back out, with the - button, you see averaged values for counties or states as a whole.

    Also, these maps cover the entire country, so you can see how the values apply in other places of interest. Finally, they have pop-up labels and information. If you click on an area, a window will come up showing relevant info for the zone(s) that in view. As you'll see, this behavior changes depending on how close-in or far-out you have zoomed, but it's self explanatory.

    The first map is the one used for the previous post's screen shots. It shows the median household income of any given area, compared with the national median of just over $50,000. The bluer and darker the color, the richer the households in that area. The lighter the coloring, the poorer. The further in you click, the finer-grained the classifications you will see -- again, for anyplace, not just Mississippi. (The three dots on the maps are the three cities of the Golden Triangle: red for Columbus, blue for West Point, and green for Starkville.)

    Next, because this is relevant for America as a whole as well as across the South, here is a similar clickable map of the African-American share of the population in each area, based on the 2010 Census. Here darker shading means a higher African-American percentage in each neighborhood, county, or state.


    With this mapping technology, we can produce "swipable" maps, in which you can move a slider back and forth and compare different patterns or time periods. The correlations between income and race are striking—as, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been demonstrating. Update: and now John Tierney has produced one of these illuminating swipe maps. It is below. Click on "Hide Intro" to see more of the map. Then move the slider back and forth to see how racial patterns correlate with economic ones. The two sides of the map will zoom and pan in sync. When you're done with the South, try Washington DC, or Chicago. You'll see some very clear patterns.

    Also, Ta-Nehisi Coates's article is about the 21st-century living influence of slave-holding patterns from the 17th century onward, plus the 19th and 20th century history of Jim Crow and segregation. This screen shot of America's current racial distribution, zoomed out to regional scale, underscores his point. The areas with the greatest concentrations of African-Americans now are the areas where their forebears were brought and worked as slaves.

    Finally, here is a "population pressure" map, based on work by Jim Herries of Esri that was previously described here. The idea is to create a very detailed representation of the parts of America that are gaining and losing population. The blue dots are parts of America whose population is expected to grow in pace with the national average. The green dots are faster-growing areas; the magenta, areas of expected decline. This too gives you an idea of the challenge facing the Golden Triangle and other areas of the country. I find this map very instructive about all sorts of American developments, from voting patterns to the gestation points of new industries.

    That is the mapping installment for today. Next: what has gone right in the Golden Triangle's approach, and what (if anything) might be wrong with it.

    And since today is Memorial Day, please see Deb Fallows's post on the connections among this holiday, the city of Columbus, Mississippi, and our magazine.

  • Theories of History: Joe Max Higgins and the Golden Triangle of Mississippi

    "When Eurocopter came here, people started walking upright a little bit." Why has this part of Mississippi pulled ahead of some others?

    Joe Max Higgins, near the site of what will be an enormous Yokohama Tire plant in eastern Mississippi (Photos by Deborah Fallows)

    The man you see above is Joe Max Higgins Jr, who is now in his mid-50s. He grew up in Arkansas as the son of a sheriff, and since the mid-2000s he has worked on economic-development programs for the part of Mississippi known as the "Golden Triangle." You'll see more about him and his colleagues here in coming days, and he will be part of a Marketplace radio segment next week. In this first installment I'd like to explain why I'm concentrating on him, and the larger trends he illustrates.

                                                                        ***

    Through most of my life as a writer and as a person, the big issue for me has been "the American question." That is: Is the country making it? How do its realities compare with its ambitions? Where has it set the balance between the creative chaos that is its secret, and just chaos? On the long arc of renewal and dissolution, where does it stand now? Most of my books have directly or indirectly addressed this theme.

    This is a subset of the question that anyone naturally considers when living or traveling around the world. Which is: why do societies thrive, or fail? What constitutes a sense of progress, or decline? And how much can people know about what's happening to—and because of—them while it's underway?

    The list of questions could go on, but my real point is to highlight the impossibility of finding "answers." Rather, as the years have gone on I've become warier of every explanation. No theory really fits; there are counter-examples to everything; it's just too tempting to think that whatever factor is on your mind, or you're able to study, is the one that matters.

    The Great Man/Woman theory of events (Lincoln and FDR to the good, Hitler to the bad); the institutionalist emphasis (post-war Japan's recovery to the good, institutional U.S. racism to the bad); environmental constraints or destruction (Jared Diamond about the past, who knows about the future); the tyranny or blessing of geography (China vs. the US);  blunder or happenstance—these and other factors are usually all part of the story, and rarely the whole thing.

    Let's bring this back to earth. To avoid paralysis, you have to choose something to concentrate on, while remembering that inevitably more is going on. You do your best, which is how we came across Joe Max Higgins.

                                                                   ***

    Here is the question about this part of Mississippi: Why is industry coming back?

    The map above, via Esri, shows median household income by state. The bluer the state, the richer; the tan ones are poorer. Mississippi is dead last of the 50 states, with a median household income of a little over $37,000 per year, versus just over $50,000 for the country as a whole and $64,000 for Connecticut. Update: These are screen shots of the interactive maps. I'll put up an interactive version as soon as I can work out the proper log-in permissions.

    At right is a closer look at the state itself. In two areas—around Jackson, in the center of the state, and in the Memphis suburbs to the north—the median income is above the national median. All the rest are below. The lightest areas on the map are the poorest parts of the state, in the Delta. For instance, the median household income of Rosedale, Mississippi, on the river, is listed as $14,000. The three colored dots in east-central Mississippi represent the three cities of the so-called Golden Triangle: Columbus, in red; West Point, in blue; and Starkville, in green.

    The three cities have different stories and situations. Starkville is home of the leading research university in the area, Mississippi State, and has the greater stability and higher-end amenities that come with being a university town. West Point is the smallest of the three and, in recent years, the hardest hit by economic change. In 2007, Sara Lee closed a nearly century-old meat processing plant that had employed more than 1,000 workers, fully a tenth of the town's population. Since then its unemployment rate has been near 20 percent. Columbus was historically the richest of the three, but one also hit by the one-after-another collapse of low-wage manufacturing jobs that had come there through the mid-20th century. It has relied very heavily on the nearby Columbus Air Force Base, which Mississippi's powerful  Congressional delegation has defended through wave after wave of base-closing measures.

    The whole area is poor.

    Downtown West Point.

                                                                      ***

    If you look away from the factories that have closed in the vicinity, and the downtown storefronts that are vacant, what you also notice are huge new factories opening up, as previously mentioned here. What you see below is a 1970s-era "Golden Triangle" airport built at a centerpoint of the three cities, and with Delta connections to Atlanta. Just beyond it is a sprawling, modern steel mill owned by the Russian Severstal company, whose scale is barely imaginable from this picture. Nearby are large factories making truck engines, helicopters, drones and other advanced devices, at wages equal to several multiples of the local household income. Not far away, Yokohama Tires of Japan is building a major new plant.

    Golden Triangle airport in the foreground, new factories behind them.

    In all, the Golden Triangle region has brought in some $6 billion in capital investment over the past decade, creating some 6,000 new jobs, in a concentrated, poor region where this influx has made an enormous difference.

    One of Columbus's shuttered factories, for the American Trouser company.

    So here's the question we'll try to wrestle with. Why so much? Why here? And to what effect?

    As suits the complexity of life, the answers go in every direction. The search for non-union labor is a central factor. Incentives from the state and local governments are another. Plain old political log-rolling has been crucial to Mississippi and some other Southern states: its representatives are tough on federal spending, and even tougher about keeping earmarked projects coming here. And on down the long list.

    Brenda Lathan, center, VP of the Golden
    Triangle LINK organization, being interviewed
    for an upcoming Marketplace segment. Charlton
    Thorp of Marketplace at left, me at right.

    But there are countless places that offer incentives, and discourage unions, and would love to have the factories. Each of the big employers that has recently chosen the Golden Triangle considered scores or hundreds of other possibilities, many in the South and some in Mexico or the Caribbean, before coming here. Why here?

    Allowing for all the other explanations, I will argue that in this part of the country, a handful of forceful people made the difference in shaping the region's economy as a whole. In a way this is consistent with what we've seen in a number of other communities. A stalwart group is determined to give Eastport, Maine, a chance; a series of civic leaders shifted the Greenville area of South Carolina to a new civic and economic footing; successful business people who retained a strong local identity have made a huge difference in the character of Holland, Michigan, and Redlands, California.

    Another shuttered factory in Columbus, which used to make
    marble headstones (including for Arlington Cemetery).

    In this part of Mississippi, it is harder to identify purely civic leaders who have played a comparable role. But it is hard to ignore the difference  that the area's economic-development team has made, including Joe Max Higgins and Brenda Lathan and their colleagues at a regional organization called the LINK, Raj Shaunak of Eastern Mississippi Community College, and others we will describe.

    Two illustrations to close for now. One day I was taking a tour of the major industries around the Golden Triangle Regional Airport with a group of investors from the Midwest who had put money into the region and were considering investing more. On the bus back to the airport—where several of their own jets were ready to fly them back home—one of the investors told me, "There are entire states that can't come close to what this team has done here," meaning Higgins and Lathan.

    During that visit, my wife and I sat with Higgins in his office and asked him to describe the sequence of development in the area. What was the turning point. He had a long list, but he focused on "Eurocopter"— the facility, now part of Airbus, that makes helicopters for both civilian and US-military use.

    "Eurocopter was really, really, a big deal," he said. "It was important because they make helicopters! In a county and a state where most people think the women are all barefoot and pregnant, all the men got snuff up in their lip, we're all members of the Klan—now we're making something that flies! That genuinely changed our psyche. It was monumental. When Eurocopter came in, people started walking upright a little bit."

    It's a story he had told before, and he reveled in the "barefoot and pregnant" effect. But he was talking about something real, as we'll try in the next installments to explain.

    At the new Yokohama plant, from left: Marketplace's Tommy Andres, me, Joe Max Higgins, Kai Ryssdal,
    Charlton Thorp.
  • Who Has a Legitimate Gripe Against Vibram Shoes? The Syndactyly Crowd

    Why some readers view this photo as a frightening "trigger."

    Earlier this month I explained why I still wear, like, use, and tout Vibram "finger shoes," despite the company's having settled a claim from those who felt its health benefits were overstated. Once again, above you see one of my sons and me modeling the shoes four years ago.

    Summary of that earlier argument: If you already know how to run in the "forefoot-strike" style that comes naturally when if you are barefoot or wearing minimally padded shoes, or if you can adjust or learn, then these shoes are great. But if you prefer, or are stuck with, the "heel-strike" style of running that is fostered or enabled by today's thickly padded shoes, you're not going to like finger shoes and should stay away.

    Now responses, starting with someone who brought up an angle I hadn't considered. A reader wrote:

    Say what you will about your finger shoes, but I'm one of those one in
    a thousand or so with webbed toes (syndactyly); on each foot I have
    two toes fused together.

    These are not the reader's feet. They're from
    Wikipedia to illustrate the syndrome.

    It gave me a certain amphibian chic as a school boy swimmer, and a
    proud sense of identification with my web-toed grandfather, but other
    than that my toes have played no exceptional role in my life apart
    form the role ties usually play; but those shoes - they freak me out.

    I could only wear them if I had my toes sliced apart (ain't gonna
    happen), to my feet and brain they look like medieval torture devices,
    so when I see them I can't help but cringe and turn away.

    I wrote back to say, touché, "I think you're the only person who can legitimately complain about these shoes!"

    He replied right away:

    You know more of us than you realize - we just don't wear open-toed sandals.

    Excellent point! Now a few more on this theme, less exotic (mainly) in their medical info and all in the testimonial vein. 

    "I have no kneecaps." From another reader, a female runner:

    I'm not applying for the Vibram Fivefinger shoe either! 

    My knee caps were removed one at a time in the 1970s—no replacements back then—due to congenital dislocation issues.  Don’t worry, my legs don’t bend backwards: but finding shoes in which I could walk for miles, or stand all day as a trainer has been profoundly difficult.  Because of the imbalance of muscles (great rocky calves and really flabby quads because of the biomechanics), I’d lost the ability to “feel” the ground.   Poor proprioception, it’s called.  My neighbors called me out about how much I was falling in my yard.

    For me, the funky looking toed shoe is a life saver.  Since I began wearing them as my everyday—and sometimes platform—shoe, my knees hurt less, I fall much. Love them, and wish the lace-up version came in a basic black. 

    Now about their chronically funky smell…. [JF note: Yes, it is good to wash them regularly.]

    If they work for you, they’re wondrous.  If they don’t, don’t wear them.  We could use this common-sense approach to a lot of issues these days.

    "I think of them as Zoris." From a reader on the west coast:

    I am a 60-year-old, non-athletic woman with a bad knee who loves my Vibram Five Fingers. It should be noted that I grew up not wearing shoes unless I had to. For me, growing up in SoCal, it was mostly barefoot or Zoris (aka thongs or flip-flops). I even have "Zori feet," a major space between my big toes and the next. I've tried Tevas, but they were too constructed for my feet.

    Sample Zoris, also from Wikipedia.

    When my husband I did a half-world trip last year (Hong Kong to Venice), I bought my first pair of VFFs. I walked everywhere in them, including rocky terrain, sand, and asphalt. I did mountains, monuments, and muddy streets with no issues at all. Three months in all, and I never wore anything else but VFFs. Yes, I washed them periodically.

    While Vibram has acknowledged their adverts were somewhat misleading, I cannot in all conscience put in a request for a refund based on those claims. I LOVE my VFFs and even purchased another pair after the announcement of a possible refund.

    The shoes just WORK for me. I have never had a better pair for hiking and walking. Not to mention all the people who took pictures of my VFFs in rural communities around the world!

    "I have never looked back." From a male runner—I'm ID'ing people this way just so you know who's weighing in:

    I have been running regularly for 10 years, but after reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run soon after it came out, I tried Vibram Five Fingers -- and have never looked back.

    As you noted, the shoes taught to me run on the balls of my feet (which I had never done before), and now (at 67), I am still free of the bone and muscle ailments that my siblings and friends seem to all suffer from, I was very glad to see your defense of Vibram. 

    "Burn it to earn it." From a male runner on the West Coast who was able to shift his style. 

    I think the lawsuit reflects a failing of marketing rather than a failing of the product. Too many people bought the shoes on the basis of hype without considering their own running style.

    My own running experiences reflect the same kind of transformation of style that is necessitated by a switch to finger shoes. I had been running in big, cushy stability shoes and getting shin splints. I switched my gait from a heel strike to a mid-to-forefoot strike and went to a near-minimal shoe. No more shin splints.

    I’m glad to hear you’re a runner as well as a beer aficionado, as I am myself. Beer always tastes better when you work up a thirst. Burn it to earn it, eh?

    That is all. My sympathies to those in the syndactyly community. I am sorry to have given you a fright. 

  • Five Good Books

    On sale now!

    A good side of the writing/journalistic life is that many of your friends end up being people in the business. Well, most of the time that's a good side. It's also the set-up for the news I'm presenting here: the arrival of five books worth your attention, all by people I happen to know. They're books I'd recommend anyway—just as I would urge that you read Ta-Nehisi Coates's new piece even if he weren't a friend and colleague.

    Here goes:

    Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War, by Ken Adelman. 

    As director of U.S. arms-control policy under Ronald Reagan, Kenneth Adelman was on the scene in Reykjavik as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their dramatic talks that, Adelman argues, were the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The line from Reagan intimates and admirers over the years has been that the Gipper, beneath his casual and even befuddled-seeming exterior, was a shrewdly observant strategist. This is the impression conveyed by Phil Hartman's immortal SNL sketch about "Mastermind Reagan." Ken Adelman's view of Reagan is highly admiring (in the view of David Hoffman in the WaPo, too much so), but the book is full of color, details, vignettes, and drama that buttress Adelman's view and made me glad to have read his account. It's also a very useful refresher on a reality now easily forgotten: how stressful and genuinely dangerous those Cold War years were.

    The People's Republic of Amnesia, by Louisa Lim. Over the past few years in China, there has always been some "special" circumstance that required an "unusual" tightening of censorship, surveillance, and vigilance against protest. If it's not the "Twin Meetings" it's the visit of a foreign dignitary or an important anniversary. Right now, the increasing tumult and anti-civilian terrorist violence in Xinjiang have further ratcheted up security.

    Even without these latest events, China would have been on lockdown for the next few weeks, because of the impending 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and resulting crackdown, on "May 35th," 1989. (Chinese censors tend to block out references to "June 4," giving rise to the "May 35" workaround.) Louisa Lim—well-known to US listeners for her NPR reports, and a friend and colleague when I lived in Shanghai and Beijing—has revisited the story with an emphasis on the nationwide depth and seriousness of the uprising in 1989—in contrast to what was usually portrayed as a Beijing-centered phenomenon—and the thoroughness of the government's effort to remove it from public memory. That's one more reason it's worth reading as a counterpart to Ta-Nahesi Coates's piece on what's been effaced from American public memory.

    Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. I first met and worked for Nader when I was 19 (and when he was a nationally famous figure in his mid-30s). I have kept in touch with him over the years, even though—like many of his one-time colleagues and supporters—I strongly disagreed with the way he continued his presidential run in 2000 and was at odds with him for a time after that.

    Whatever your view of the Ralph Nader of 2000, or the 1960s, or other eras, I think you will be intrigued and impressed by the case and face he is presenting now. In a recent C-Span hour with Brian Lamb, Nader was relaxed and jokey. I will say more in another installment about the parallels between Nader's arguments in this book and the practical-minded successes my wife Deb and I have been seeing and writing about in our recent travels. (Eg, in comparing Burlington, Vermont, and Greenville, South Carolina.)

    For now I'll say: at the national level, a pox-on-both-their-houses, all-politicians-are-crooks outlook on politics can be nihilist and destructive. We have two national parties; one or the other is going to hold power; and there are  big and growing differences in their values. But at the local and state level, a lot more is possible. So Nader argues, in a book and with a style that I think can broaden his appeal. Also, he's arguing for a right-left convergence to challenge corporate overlordism, something that neither of the major parties is positioned to pull off. Worth checking out.

    China's Second Continent, by Howard French. Four years ago in the Atlantic, Howard French—long of the NYT, now of Columbia Journalism School—had a great story about how Chinese interests and the Chinese government were extending their reach into Africa. It was a process that both resembled previous Western imperialism and differed from it—including, importantly, in the absence of gunboats and colonial administrators. 

    French's new book is on this same theme, and the wonderful aspect about it is its reportorial vividness. "Modern China" can sound boring in the abstract, to say nothing of "Modern China's relations with still-developing powers." But the actual human beings and organizations who make up modern China—with their dreams, their excesses, their dramas, their achievements and failures—are very interesting, and these are the stories French tells on-scene.  

    Age of Ambition, by Evan Osnos, of the New Yorker. My friends and family are sick of hearing me say that this is the golden age of writing about China—but that's still true, and Evan Osnos's book is another great illustration. It's the golden age because so many foreigners (and Chinese) are prowling around the country and learning about it; because there are so many facets of the country's story to tell; and because so many writers have found ways to make all the big points about the country's past, present, and future through novelistic or picaresque tales or memoirs.

    Evan Osnos applies this universal-in-the-particular approach very well in this book. It is wryly funny throughout, laughing with rather than laughing at the absurdities of daily life in China; without being too obvious about the point, it conveys how contradictory and sometimes out-of-control the contending realities in China are; and it gives a clear sense of the mixed nature of China's modern "rise." Plus it's fun to read.

    Make allowances, if you will, for the fact that I'm talking about books by my friends. Then, after making the allowances, dig in.

  • Coming to Terms With Difficult History: Japan, China, Germany, and the United States

    Other countries are distorted by their failure to come to terms with brutal realities of their past. So are we.

    Carlos Javier Ortiz, for the Atlantic.

    Listen to the next discussion you hear of tensions between Japan and two of its neighbors, South Korea and China. You'll hear again and again that an important root problem is Japan's difficulty in coming to terms with its history of World War II-era aggression in China and use of Korean "comfort women" as sex slaves for its troops.

    Listen to the discussions you're about to hear on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China. You'll hear about the distortions arising from the Chinese government's refusal to come to terms with its suppression of protest then, let alone the large-scale terrors of the Cultural Revolution and the politically engineered mass starvations of the Great Leap Forward era.

    Listen to any discussion of politics and economics in Europe, and see how much turns on recognition of Germany's doing as much as a country can to come to terms with the atrocities of its Nazi era. Or consider what the struggle for "truth and reconciliation" has done to increase post-apartheid South Africa's chances for political and economic progress.

    Then read Ta-Nehisi Coates's magnificent new article in the latest issue of the Atlantic. It is about America's failure to come to terms with a central, brutal reality of our long-ago past and our ongoing present. When he talks about "reparations," he is talking about a process that begins with facing the truth, and the past, with the honesty we fault the Japanese or Chinese for failing to display. 

    Read this article, and reflect on the recent Supreme Court rulings saying that since racism is a dim relic of the past, there's no further point in voting-rights laws or affirmative action provisions.

    Mainly, read the article.

    ***

    By the way, if you value this kind of journalism, please consider supporting the institution that fostered it. We're offering the article and accompanying videos, maps, and documents free online, but they're costly to produce. Subscribe! After you read and reflect on this piece.

  • Of Fear and Flying

    ... and terrorism too.

    Portion of the cover of Erica Jong's 1973 book Fear of Flying, which is linguistically but not conceptually related to the topics discussed here.

    Last night I mentioned the disconnect between things that are frightening, from sharks to airline flights, and things that are likely actually to do us harm. Several reactions worth noting:

    1) From a reader who understood the illustration I deliberately left out, to see if anyone would notice. Of course that illustration is terrorism and America's fearful response to it.

    As academics Ian Lustick and John Mueller have argued for years, along with Benjamin Friedman (formerly of MIT, now of Cato) and mere journalists, the fear of terrorist attacks, and the responses provoked by the attacks of 2001, have done far more damage to the country than even those original, devastating blows. Many more Americans died in the wholly needless Iraq war than were killed on 9/11; the multi-trillion-dollar cost of the war eclipses any domestic budgetary folly; the damage to civil liberties and American honor internationally has been profound; and so on. All this was all born of fear, often cynically inflamed, not realistic assessment of danger.

    This reader cited an online item, "You Are More Likely to Be Killed By Boring, Mundane Things than Terrorism" and added, "This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the disconnect between fear and danger." Yes, except for "perhaps."

    2) Back to airlines. From Jeremy Davis, of Seattle: 

    I suffer from panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which have put a bit of a damper on my love of aviation (I wrote about the clash of those two aspects in an Air & Space article last year). But I'm also an aeronautical engineer.

    The point I'd like to make is that, even with in-depth knowledge of the systems and structure of aircraft and aviation, fear can manipulate how we observe the world around us and skew how we interpret our senses.  

    During my first panic attack (on board a flight from LAX), my brain invented half a dozen explanations for why I was suddenly vertiginous and fighting to breathe. Some of those explanations were medical, but most were bizarre inventions about the cabin pressure supply lines being blocked or the aft pressure bulkhead succumbing to cracks.  None of these were plausible from an engineering standpoint, but the bond between my fear at that moment and the act of flying on a commercial airline was forged so well that even now (a decade later), I still can't board a commercial flight.

    So while I agree that writers tend to play on the public's unfounded fears about flying, we shouldn't discount the ways that fear can warp how we view, and subsequently recount, our experiences. Ultimately, I think it's an editor's duty to balance a writer's artistic license and honest belief in the experiences he or she felt with the publication's integrity and adherence to verifiable facts. I can only hope that my editor and I toed that line better than the NY Times.

    Of course Mr. Davis is right. Our emotions and fears are beyond rational control. That's why we call them "emotions." And his Air & Space article is very good, including its climax when a pilot-colleague helps him escape his panic attacks with a comforting ride in a small airplane.

    As I read Jeremy Davis's article, I naturally thought of Scott Stossel's memorable cover story for our magazine, drawn from his memorable book. All of these are precisely about the logical mind's inability to contain pre-logical fears. That is a big enough problem when it affects individuals. It's something else—and something that should be easier to recognize and curb—when it affects whole institutions, from journalism to national government. I know that the "should" shows me to be a quaint meliorist.

    3) Back to cars. From another reader:

    I liked the note re being scared in a normal car ride. I have often given a little monologue that goes something like this.

    Imagine for a moment that the personal automobile had never been invented. We are all riding around in trains, trolleys, busses, etc.

    Now, along comes an inventor who invents the personal automobile. He lobbies the U.S. Senate to get the government to build roads. They have a hearing. At some point, we get the following interchange.

    Senator: So, how fast will these "cars" go?
    Inventor: Oh, maybe 70 or 80 mph.
    Senator: And, how are you going to keep them from running into each other?
    Inventor: We're going to paint lines on the road.

    We would still be riding in busses. 

    4) On to the planet as a whole.

    I realize that this question is more profound than the questions related to air safety, though I've had that same thought many times myself while barreling down the highway.

    I also would apply it to the distinction between the Cold War [with its dangerous nuclear standoffs] versus the Global War on Terror with its [fear-inducing] apocalyptic imagery in the messianic sense (and that goes for the jihadists as well as our own homegrown evangelicals who are Rapture Ready.

    Is that the core conundrum facing humanity when it comes to global warming as the driver of catastrophic climate change?   Is there ANY real world experience that would shift the "fear" of an ecological disaster on a global scale into a universal acknowledgment of the clear and present "danger"?
  • You Won't Regret Reading These Essays by 18-year-olds in Mississippi

    "The little storms of life have left me doused. The wind of my parents’ perennial unemployment has blown away my umbrella."

    Memorial stones in downtown Starkville, county seat of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, and home of Mississippi State University. On the left, one honoring Confederate soldiers, erected in 2005. On the right, one honoring Union soldiers, erected in 2006.
    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    In case you have missed it, please be sure to check out the latest post by my wife, Deb Fallows, from our time in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi. 

    This one is based on essays from high school seniors at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, or MSMS. It's a residential, public high school for students from every corner of the state. Deb asked them to write about what the school had meant to them. I think you will be surprised and impressed by the answers. A brief sample:

    Sometimes I believe the soul of Mississippi is as dark and bottomless as muddy rivers settling through rolling hills. These contaminated waters seek out the unique and attempt to wash away the scent of rebellion, or the hope for change. My greatest fear is to wander aimlessly into those waters, be molded by conformity, forget my passion, my compassion, and acquiesce to the current of complacency. As I dig my naked feet into the burning red clay on my middle-of-nowhere dirt road, I cannot help but feel the history of Mississippi, rich as the soil, leeching into my skin. Despite the intense heat, I shiver. Turning on my heels to give one fleeting glance to the dancing colors of the fiery sunset, I am sure of only one thing: I do not belong here. 

    As I grasp the battered storm door of my unleveled mobile home, I envision the scene that awaits me.... 

    These are by high school students, from a wide range of economic and racial backgrounds, at a public school in one of the nation's poorest states. They made a big impression on me, and I think you will find them interesting.  

  • Telling the Difference Between Danger and Fear

    Bathtubs should be 365 times more frightening than sharks. So why aren't they?

    A shark alleged to have attacked four people in Egypt. He was an exception that supports an unfortunate anti-shark stereotype. (Reuters)

    A few days ago I pointed out that yet another popular news item had described how frightened an airline passenger was, about a situation that was objectively not dangerous at all."Yet another" because stories like this -- there we were, about to die! -- are journalistic staples, now as much as ever. (Two examples from the NYT, here and here.)

    In part this reflects the bone-deep suspicion that people shouldn't be sitting and reading in a tube 30,000 feet above the ground. In part, it's the famous human difficulty of distinguishing things we're scared of from things that really threaten us. On average, one American dies each day in a bathtub accident -- and one American dies each year from a shark attack. Bathtubs should be 365 times as frightening as sharks, but it's the reverse. We don't have "Bathtub Week" on the Discovery Channel.

    David Ryan, who under his previous pseudonym Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here, talks about this fear-versus-danger confusion, as it shows up in his work as a charter-boat captain. After reading about airplanes that (allegedly) came within "scraping distance" of each other (actually 5+ miles), Ryan wrote:

    We use an AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder for identification of nearby traffic and collision avoidance. Here's my "scraping distance" story. [And a recent photo of his craft, crew, and passengers en route.]

    In May of 2010 after 13 days at sea, during which time we rarely saw more than one vessel a day, on AIS or visually, we found ourselves just south of the Nantucket traffic separation zone (shipping lane) running east and west out of New York Harbor. Now, rather than one or no targets of interest, we had a dozen vessels, some very large and moving very fast, to keep on eye on.

    It was dusk and the light was fading when we ID'd a west-bound freighter on a course that would make a close pass with us as we headed north towards Montauk. 

    This is what we did:

    Using the AIS we ascertained the vessel's name, course, and speed.

    Using our VHF radio we made contact with the bridge of the other vessel and inquired whether or not they could see us. The replied they had us on radar, AIS, and visually.

    I communicated our concern that our courses might bring us closer than comfortable. Being a sailing vessel, we were the stand-on vessel, but the Law of Gross Tonnage ultimately rules. We asked the freighter if he would like us to adjust our course to ensure we took his stern.

    The freighter replied that we should stand-on and he would increase his speed to pass in front of us well before we were anywhere near each other.

    We thanked him, stood by on #16 and then watch the freighter pick up it's pace and pass in front of us about three miles ahead.

    The entire encounter was, for us, tense. We wanted to be sure there were no misunderstandings, or if there were, that we would be ready to respond sufficiently to get out the way of the much larger vessel.

    The next day I was in the front passenger seat of our family minivan taking crew to various airports and train stations so they could find their way home and I was TERRIFIED!!!

    Just 12 hours earlier I had been in a tense situation where my boat was going about 5kts, the other vessel was going about 20kts, and the distance between us was measured in 1000s of yards.

    Now I was barreling down the highway, at closings speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, sometimes with mere inches to spare. In other words, we were driving down a two land country highway at 55mph with on coming traffic. I resolved my terror by closing my eyes and going to sleep.

    In case my point is not clear, we are more comfortable with familiar sensations and risks than unfamiliar ones. Two weeks on a nearly empty ocean made the shipping lanes seem like rush hour traffic, and the "rush-hour" traffic of the shipping lanes made a drive down a country highway pure terror (I really did close my eyes and go to sleep because I couldn't just sit there flinching in horror every time we closed with another car). No doubt the  author of "I almost died" felt as scared during the plane's descent as I did as we barreled down Route 27 at 10am. The fear is real. The danger not so much. 

    We all know what he means. For me, it's the contrast I feel at the end of every trip in my small airplane. Over the previous few hours, I've been in the middle of an activity that is objectively dangerous -- but from which I could safely turn my attention for 30 seconds at a time to look at a chart or check the weather, except during the couple of minutes of approach and landing. (Or on an instrument procedure, or inside the clouds, or on takeoff, or in other "high-workload" phases of a flight.) Then when I get in the car to drive home, other vehicles are whizzing past me with very small clearance, and if anyone stops paying attention for even a few seconds, the results can be dire. Yet we all treat this as routine.

    Main lesson for writers and editors: If you want to talk about an experience that was frightening, talk about how scared you were. That's real. Not about how close you came to dying, because that probably had no relationship with how you felt.  

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