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.
  • A School With a Sense of Place

    By Deborah Fallows.

    By Deborah Fallows.

    We arrived at The Grove School in Redlands, California, just before their winter break, at about noon and right in time for lunch.

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    The Grove School is a public charter school with about 200 students in grades 7 through 12. It follows the Montessori system, and it adjoins a private Montessori elementary school. The complex has citrus groves on one side and pastures, livestock enclosures, farm buildings, and vegetable gardens on the other. The effect is of a rural-area school that happens to be on the edge   of a city.

    The middle school on the campus is called The Farm, and students there grow some of the produce for the school lunches, including the one we ate. High schoolers do rotations in the kitchen in preparing, cooking, and cleaning up the meal.  On the day we visited the menu was called “Hawaiian,” and included chicken, rice, pasta (with some carrots, maybe from the farm) and a chunk of pineapple.  It was much better than the school lunches I remember.

    Grove is a fairly new school in Redlands, graduating its first class in 2002. When my husband, Jim, grew up in the town, every student from every corner of the town went to its one high school, Redlands High. As the area grew, the RHS enrollment became unmanageably large. When Jim graduated in the late 1960s, he had 800+ classmates; a generation later, the town’s population had doubled, from around 35,000 to nearly 70,000, and the school was swollen too. Now two more 4-year public high schools have opened: Redlands East Valley in 1997, with an enrollment of about 2300 in grades 9 – 12, and Citrus Valley High School, which graduated its first class in 2012. Redlands High itself now has about 2300 students in grades 9 – 12.

    Farmland to be planted at the Grove School; historic structures being refurbished in the rear.

    Grove was founded in 1999 by a small number of teachers and parents who were interested in continuing the Montessori experience where their kids had thrived in lower grades. And in the spirit of generosity and participation that Redlanders consider a hallmark of the town, lots of people have pitched in to build or remodel the buildings and grounds of the school, which sits in the newly-designated Heritage Park historical district in Redlands

    After lunch, Gena Engelfried, the head of the school, turned us over to a few groups of students, to tour us around and tell us about their school.

    Principal Gena Engelfried, with an in-process outdoor
    cooking site. 

    The high schoolers were excited to talk to us about what they call Praxis, a project they do every trimester, which centers on a philosophical question, the integration of that question into each of their academic classes, and a final paper and group project.  They just finished up “How do machines influence society?” and the next trimester’s question “How are belief systems formed?” had just been announced that morning.

    Several of the students described their final projects, which included a welding piece, drama productions, and a magazine, among others.  My favorite was a video showing how machines helped society recover from a disaster. “What was the disaster?” we asked. The answer, which reminded us that we were indeed among high schoolers: zombie apocalypse.  All three of our guides said the Praxis was a lot to handle, especially the first year. “It was scary,” they said, but by the end of the experience, they had a great sense of accomplishment.  When graduates returned home from college to visit, they reported on how well praxis had prepared them for the kind of academic work they were expected to do in college.

    The principal described that Grove followed a “place based approach to learning.” As I interpreted that, it means that the curriculum and activities of the school integrate with the town and its natural environment.  I’ve been going to Redlands myself since the late 1960s, and I would describe place based for Redlands to include oranges, farming, mountains, canyons, and a distinct feeling of being in The West.  After visiting Grove, I would say that the school indeed honors those elements of place, while operating in an academic environment that is, after all, preparing its students for college.

    As a very small school that can’t naturally support the many traditional sports teams and productions that big high schools can, the Grove community does a lot of creative improvising. They do have a handful of sports teams, including coed soccer, girls volleyball and basketball, boys basketball, and archery, of which Redlands has a long tradition. To a student, each one recited a long list of nonacademic activities, from familiar ones like ballet, photography, choir, and piano to others like blacksmithing, forging, and (reminding us Redlands is really part of the West) bullwhip.

    In the metal shop.

    Students are highly encouraged to do 30 hours of service and 40 hours of internship each year. Those activities the kids described ranged from coaching kids’ soccer, to volunteering at the Redlands Community Hospital, the animal clinic, the Cold Weather Shelter, and working at a dry cleaners,  steaming clothes and handling the register.

    Lunch time, under the orange trees.

    Last year, every graduate went on to higher education, mostly to colleges in the California systems or other schools on the west coast. Besides heading for college, a few other students head in less traditional directions, to culinary school or acting school. The student profile of Grove is very different from that of the public schools. Grove attracts students who, for a large variety of reasons, are seeking a non-traditional school. It is, remember, a public school, and places are awarded by lottery, although preference is given to children of its founders, siblings of those enrolled, and those who have previously been in the Montessori system, numbering about 25%. There is a waiting list.

    During our afternoon, I was taken with two things in particular about the students we met. First, to a person, each was very poised and well-spoken, not in a smarmy Eddie Haskell kind of way, but in a genuine interesting-likable-kid kind of way.

    Two of our student guides.

     I don’t think the kids were singled out to guide us around; they seemed to be plucked as random students who were free at the time we appeared.  And second, these kids loved their school, and even those whom I would easily describe as cool and edgy – and I mean really cool and really edgy—were comfortable talking freely about how much they loved their school.

    Two of the boys were describing in detail the traditional graduation exercises from middle to high school, which Grove calls the Bridge Ceremony, where the whole school participates in the symbolic crossing of the footbridge between the middle and high school campuses.  One boy described how he nearly broke down with emotion when he, as an 8th grader, was charged to describe “his” 9th grader graduating to the high school, who had been a real friend and model for him. When we asked another boy to reflect on his years at Grove, he said, “I would recommend it to myself 1000 times over”.

    The Bridge students cross when going from middle to high school.

    We also toured the Farm, with several middle schoolers. They showed us their working farm, where they spent much of their time tending all aspects of the animals and crops. The kids decide what animals they want to raise for the year, with the explicit directive that the animals are not pets, but are farm animals, which will be sold off at the end of the year to help support the Farm. They have had rabbits, goats, pigs, sheep, and chickens. This year’s turkeys were gone by Thanksgiving. They once had alpacas, which proved to be far too much work for the return of their wool. With middle schoolers’ jittery humor, they broke in on each others’ descriptions of one boy who particularly loved the alpaca; they nicknamed him the “alpaca whisperer” and told how he once missed class because he fell asleep among the alpaca.

    On that warm winter afternoon, the Farm’s middle schoolers were harvesting 120 heads of lettuce, red leaf, green leaf, and romaine, which they had contracted to sell to a locally beloved family-owned grocery store called Gerrard's.

    Afternoon harvest time.

    The road to the Grove’s success has come with some controversy. This fall, the school filed for the fourth renewal of its charter, which expires next summer. A complicated and somewhat fraught back-and-forth has ensued among the school, San Bernardino County, and the Redlands Unified School District, which holds the charter and is responsible for its finances and student achievement.  As of December, no conclusion was reached, and another hearing on new school documents that would speak to a new set of requirements that came into being during the ongoing negotiations is scheduled for February.

    Photos by James Fallows. To contact the author: DebFallows at gmail.com .

  • Our New Champion in Self-Defeating Soft Power: Japan

    Only one step could have made conditions worse among Japan, China, and South Korea, with spillover effects on America. That is the step Japan's prime minister has just taken.

    Main hall of Yasukuni Shrine, via Wikipedia.                 

    At first I didn't believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn't believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn't actually do it, right? 

    It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    Prime Minister Abe going to the shrine today,
    via Reuters and BBC.

    Yasukuni -- which simply as a structure is quite beautiful and reverence-evoking -- is the honored resting place of Japan's large number of fallen soldiers. Unfortunately these include a number of those officially classified as war criminals from WW II. Government leaders and members of the general public in China, and to an only slightly lesser degree South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggressive cruelty. As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement.

    In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan.

  • Thinking About Iran in 2013, by Thinking About China in 1971

    No historical match-up is neat or perfect, but this one is usefully close.

    Nixon in Beijing, 1972, via Wikipedia

    What follows has no seasonal relevance, unless you consider this the time of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. For your background processing during family gatherings and holiday observances, you could try this concept:

    When considering the next steps with Iran, we should think less about Nazi Germany (the frequent P.M. Netanyahu parallel) or North Korea (a parallel often made by opponents of a deal), and more about the China of Chairman Mao. 

    Other people have made this point, but let me lay out the train of reasoning:

    • What happened in 1979. For nearly 35 years, Iran has been at odds with most of the developed world, and China has been interacting with the world. Within the space of a few months in the surprisingly fateful year of 1979, Iranian extremists under the Ayatollah Khomeini took over their country in rebellion against the Shah, his U.S. sponsors, and the West — and Chinese pragmatists under Deng Xiaoping began the series of modernizations whose effects we know so well. These followed the opening of Chinese-U.S. relations that Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong began in the early 1970s.
    • The damage of isolation. Iran’s estrangement from the rest of the world has been bad principally for its own people. But it has also been bad for the United States, for world stability in general, and for Israel. Arguably the only beneficiaries, apart from Iran’s governing group, have been Iran’s regional and religious rivals, starting with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the current Saudi Arabia.
    • The benefits of integration. The world is far better off because of China’s integration rather than exclusion, notwithstanding all the serious frictions that remain. Strictly for reasons of scale, Iran’s re-integration would not be as world-changing as China’s has been. But it would be very important — much more, say, than Burma’s recent switch, or Cuba's eventual one — and on balance would have a positive overall effect on the world: economically, strategically, culturally, and in other ways.

      Because there is no evidence that Iran’s population has been brainwashed into extremism through its outsider era — much less so than with China’s, where the Cultural Revolution had barely wound down when the U.S. re-established relations — Iran’s re-integration with the world would likely be faster and easier than China’s. 
    • Regional winners and losers. Although America’s rapprochement with China was clearly beneficial overall, it wasn’t good, or seen as good, for all parties. Even apart from its intended cornering effect on the Soviet Union, it was surprising and threatening to America’s main ally in the region, Japan. (The Nixon-to-China move was one of several “Nixon shocks” that gravely alarmed Japanese leaders.) It was also surprising in South Korea, where U.S. troops were (and are) still stationed along the frontier with China’s main client state, North Korea. And it was seen as nothing less than a life-and-death threat by the Republic of China in Taiwan, since establishing relations with the government in Beijing necessarily meant breaking them with the one in Taipei.
    •  “Nixon goes to China.” Because the U.S.-China deal overturned everything that America’s long-dominant, Taiwan-favoring “China Lobby” had stood for, making the deal required sophistication in both domestic and international politics. The cliche about Nixon going to China underscores the importance of Nixon’s anti-Communist reputation. But before the deal he tried to soften up the China Lobby as much as possible — and then he and his successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, overcame it when necessary, especially using business allies to argue that what had been good for the old China Lobby was not necessarily the best course for the United States. 

      In the end, 35 years ago this month, Warren Christopher, as the Carter Administration’s deputy secretary of state, was sent to Taipei. There he was mobbed by enormous angry throngs as he prepared to deliver in person the news that the United States was taking a step that the Taiwan government considered betrayal and that its China Lobby allies in the U.S. had bitterly opposed.
    • Bringing this back to Iran. Thus the obvious parallels. With a potential re-engagement with Iran, the United States has a chance to correct a distortion that, if not as harmful as the one with China, has gone on longer. (The U.S. and Mao’s China had been at odds for just over 20 years when Nixon took office, vs. the impending 35th anniversary of the revolution in Iran.) But while an end to the U.S.-Iranian cold war would clearly be beneficial for both those countries and the world at large, it does not immediately help everyone.
      A rise in Iranian influence could objectively be threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, as Saudi representatives have not been shy in pointing out. And the current government of Israel has — utterly wrongly in my view, but they’re not asking  — declared the prospect of a deal to be a huge “historic mistake.” Benjamin Netanyahu has every right to see things that way, but the United States has every right to disagree with him and move ahead.
    • The next steps: the varying interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Of course it’s possible that negotiations with Iran will break down. It was never certain that the U.S. and China would be able to paper over their economic, political, and strategic differences well enough to re-establish relations. But it is overwhelmingly in American interests that negotiations succeed rather than fail — and, as Robert Hunter argued in a piece I’ve cited several times, the very fact of the negotiations represents an important step.

      Because American interests lie with the continuation rather than interuption and failure of the negotiations, the poison-pill legislation now being introduced in the Senate should be considered reckless. It is comparable to lumbering the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations with a number of negotiating guidelines known to be unacceptable to the government in Beijing -- which did not occur. And its military provision is quite strikingly different from the guarantee made to Taiwan. Different how?
    • The crucial difference in military commitments. A main ongoing source of rancor between the U.S. and China is the Taiwan Relations Act. It is the principal law governing America’s shift from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing mainland China — and, significantly, it was not enacted while the early negotiations were underway. 

      The TRA guarantees that the U.S. will resist any military takeover of Taiwan (obviously by China), and toward that end promises that the U.S. will continue to provide arms to the government in Taipei. Each time this happens, the government in Beijing complains bitterly. But here is the crucial part of that law:
    It is the policy of the United States …
    (4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
    (5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
    (6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

    (5) if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;

    • To spell it out, the Taiwan act promised arms of "a defensive character" to protect the island, and said that the United States would resist any resort to force. The Nuclear-Weapon Free Iran act says that if Israel is the first to use force, it will bring the United States along with it. I know of no precedent in U.S. foreign policy for our delegating a war-or-peace choice to some other government. Our NATO and other mutual-defense pacts, and the treaty with Japan, commit the U.S. to defend a country under active attack. This is something different.
    • The use and misuse of history. Any historical analogy is imperfect. Usually people cite "lessons" of history to reinforce what they already believe. But because discussions of Iran, Israel, and the nuclear question so often lead to analogies and lessons from Neville Chamberlain and Nazi Germany, it is worth considering this more recent and much better-matched factual case.

      Modern Iran will resemble Nazi-era Germany when it is invading its neighbors one after another, which it has not done; when it is developing the most fearsome attack-oriented military in the world, which it does not possess; and when it has set up a horrific system of internal mass extermination, which it is not doing. The one point of resemblance -- an important one, but one that should not paralyze further reasoning -- is the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric coming from some Iranian leaders, as it had come from the Nazis. That is one similarity; the differences -- in capability, world situation, regional balance of power, and possibility for negotiation -- are more striking and profound.

      And  Hassan Rouhani's Iran will resemble Mao's China in ... well, in the ways mentioned above. The situations are different, but the opportunities and stakes are closer to those Richard Nixon considered in the early 1970s than to those Chamberlain misread in the 1930s. 

    So over the holiday season, reflect on the opportunities and dangers of this moment -- and also the historic mistake that Congressional or other efforts to block the deal might entail. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to those celebrating tomorrow, and upcoming Happy New Year all around.

  • Our New Issue Is Out

    For your seasonal reading enjoyment.

    Through the bounty of Fox TV, a statue on the waterfront of Eastport, Maine. Details below.

    The next issue of the magazine is out just now. It's best read and enjoyed in print (the perfect gift!), but you can also get the idea online. Through the years I've made a point of not seeing what's in the magazine, apart from articles I'm directly involved in, until the whole thing arrives in the mail. A few highlights from this one:

    • Scott Stossel's cover-story account of his lifelong adventures in "Surviving Anxiety" is worth the year's subscription on its own. 
    • Christopher Orr answers a question many fans of Elmore Leonard may have had, of why novels that seemed so cinematic on the page had such trouble making the transition to the big screen.
    • Liza Mundy on the virtues of paternity leave and "The Daddy Track."
    • The redoubtable E. Fuller Torrey with a "very short book excerpt" about a phenomenon I have also noticed while traveling around the country.
    • And lots more including poetry, dark secrets of the Internet, extreme-craft beer, ways to fix televised sports, raciness in the air, and other compelling topics.

    The two parts of the issue I had seen before publication time were my Q & A with the also redoubtable Eric S. Lander, on how and "When Will Genomics Cure Cancer?" and related big-picture questions. And the first print-magazine installment from our "American Futures" series (with the Marketplace radio program and the Esri mapping firm). This one is about Eastport, Maine, "The Little Town That Might." Previously you heard about Eastport online (eg here and here) and in this Marketplace report.  Our new article, among other things, gives the backstory on the tasteful super-life-sized statue shown at top.

    Read, enjoy, give gift subscriptions, and have a Merry Christmas season.

  • When Will Genomics Cure Cancer?

    When Will Genomics Cure Cancer?

    A conversation with the biogeneticist Eric S. Lander about how genetic advances are transforming medical treatment

  • Eastport, Maine: The Little Town That Might

    Eastport, Maine: The Little Town That Might

    A fishing community on the country's easternmost edge is an exemplar of American reinvention.

  • From the Tree to the Table: The Journey of a Brave Little Orange

    The surprising complexity behind even the simplest-seeming aspects of modern life.

    Packing house workers, Redlands, 1950s. From Nathan Gonzales of A.K. Smiley Public Library, via Marketplace.
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    Here's a link to Marketplace's report from Redlands, California, which ran on Friday and featured the past-and-future role of citrus in the town's culture and concept of its possibilities. Through this coming week we'll have reports in this space about the new bases of this region's economy, about the improbable emergence of a local high-tech industry, about the importance of "turning point" narratives in cities' sense of themselves, about the new trends in transportation in car-centric California, and other themes.

    The Marketplace report also includes a local-knowledge quiz, which fortunately I aced, and a very nice video report on how an orange makes its journey from the field to the shipping carton and thence to wherever you might enjoy it. Most of the cartons you'll see in this report are labelled in both Japanese and Chinese and are bound for customers throughout Asia.

    American Futures: The journey of an orange from Marketplace on Vimeo.

    One other theme in this report is Kai Ryssdal's skepticism about Orange Wheat beer, the flagship brand and volume leader for the very-fast-expanding Hangar 24 craft brewery of Redlands. Orange wheat beer is locally significant, since the brewery very deliberately buys from the same local, often-struggling, old-growth citrus groves you heard about here. And according to Ben Cook, the young founder and owner of Hangar 24, it accounts for nearly two-thirds of the brewery's entire sales.

    For whatever that means: here I note that the four best-selling brands across our country are Bud Light, Bud, Coors Light, and Miller Lite, of which to me only Bud qualifies as "beer." (When I asked one of my Redlands friends about the Hangar 24 lineup, he said, "Well, I'm not really a beer drinker, but I do like that Orange Wheat.") But as fruit-flavored brews go, Hangar 24's Orange Wheat is pretty good, and by any standards its Columbus IPA, Amarillo Pale Ale, and many others are excellent. (Label images from this very interesting printing-related site.)

    Label images from Prints on Wood.

    And if you're in the vicinity, Hangar 24 is offering free cab rides home from now through New Year's Day, so drink up. More "serious" matters soon.

  • A 4th-Generation Orange Farmer, on Why He Sticks With It

    "I was born in the grove. I was raised in the grove. I developed an intense dislike of farming in the grove." Yet after 20 years around the world he has come back.

    This afternoon Marketplace will have an American Futures report on Redlands, California. This smallish town still styles much of its identity around its orange-growing industry, even though its remaining groves are a tiny fraction of those that made this area the center of world navel-orange production through the mid-1900s.

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    I expect that the report will include some comments from Bob Knight, who now actively farms some of Redlands's groves and has been leading efforts to develop better business models for the industry and prepare for the seemingly unstoppable spread of an insect-borne disease that has ravaged much of Florida's citrus groves. At top you see one of Knight's groves, with small younger trees, in the Crafton district on the east side of Redlands. At the end of this post you'll see him -- on the left, in brown shirt -- leading the visiting Marketplace and Atlantic team through an old-growth grove in San Timoteo Canyon, on the south side of town. 

    Next week we'll hear more from Knight and others about the pest problem. For now, courtesy of Marketplace, here are some clips from his original interview that give a flavor of how he thinks about the role of this old industry in a growing town.

    1) Two kinds of oranges. Knight explains the difference to Kai Ryssdal.


    2) How the orange industry shaped the culture of this area. Why it relies less on migrant workers than other crops.


    3) The economics of orange-growing. Why fruits costs more than ever, and farmers get less than ever -- and what they can do about it.


    4) Why he came back. After 20 years in New York and around the world.


    5) How people in this small town think of themselves.

    Below you see Knight making these comments and showing off his trees. Listen in this afternoon for more from him and others. (Both photos by Deborah Fallows.)


  • On the Limits, but Also the Power, of Local Narratives

    The stories cities tell about themselves, and the difference that makes.

    The WPA-era historic Redlands City Hall, now a police station, in Southern California. That's the base of an enormous flagpole at the right. Photo, yesterday, by Deborah Fallows.

    This afternoon, Friday, our Marketplace partners will have their next report in our "American Futures" series. This one is from Redlands, a smallish town that is part of the unglamorous "Inland Empire" of Southern California. In addition to being the place where I grew up and still feel that I am from, Redlands is also the home of a hugely successful, 3,000-employee software firm. This company, Esri, was founded and is still run by a family friend, Jack Dangermond. It is the world leader in the technology known as GIS (Geographic Information Systems) that forms the backbone of commercial, governmental, environmental, and other mapping services around the world. It is also our mapping partner in this Atlantic-Marketplace project.

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    My wife and I will try to describe in the next few days what we've learned over the past few days of our return here. The thought on my mind right now involves the limits but also the power of the stories people tell themselves about where they live. I think this will also be part of Marketplace's angle in the next report. 

    First, the limits. "Positive attitude," civic responsibility, and what I have come to think of as local patriotism matter only so much when matched against the largest forces of geography, demographics, of economic change.

    For instance: in our previous stop, the tiny settlement of Eastport, Maine, entrepreneurs are trying to tap the Bay of Fundy's tidal flows to generate sustainable, zero-fuel, zero-emissions electric power. And this screenshot from a GIS map, whose original you can find via Georgia Tech, suggests why. This map shows tidal-energy potential around the American coastline. The very peak of potential power, shown in red and helpfully highlighted with a red arrow, happens to be exactly in the waters off Eastport, Maine:

    That's an advantage: Eastport can do something that no town in Kansas or even most of the Atlantic coastline could. But the town also faces huge obstacles. Here's another GIS map from Esri illustrating median income across the country. You can click into a zoomable, scrollable interactive version here. This screen shot conveys the point about Eastport:

    Median household income in the city is barely half that of the U.S. as a whole, less than $27,000 per year. The blueish areas stretching from Boston up toward Portland and Bar Harbor are high income. If you could see New York, the color would be bright red, for wealth. The tan areas of the rest of Maine are poor. These realities mean fundamental challenges for Eastport and other parts of "Down East," no matter how great their determination. 

    One more illustration: young people vs. the elderly. Here's a similar map of Maine, shaded according to median age. Eastport, the speck in the southeast outlined in light blue/cyan, has a median age of 55, versus 37 for the country as a whole. (Interactive version of the map is here.) This helps explain the intensity of the effort, described last month by my wife Deb, of Eastport-area people to attract families to the city and children to the schools.

    These limits are real: no amount of positive-thinking can change a city's location or, at least in the short run, offset its demographic or transportation obstacles, as our teammate John Tierney has described.

    But -- and here we come to the positives -- the further we go in this journey, the more impressed I have become with the importance of the stories people tell themselves about their city's or region's success.

    First, they have to think of themselves as a city -- a distinct region and culture, not as part of an urban sprawl. The places we've been most definitely have a sense of themselves as distinct entities, with their own traits and strengths. I can name half a dozen places (but won't) in the Bos-Wash corridor or LA Basin sprawl that don't have that distinct sensibility and just happen to be where you live.

    What are those identities? Yes, yes, any answer is an oversimplification (like answers about the American Dream or the Chinese Dream). But, to oversimplify:

    • In Holland, Michigan, the civic story was that local business successes would stay locally focused and should/would use their wealth for civic benefit;
    • In Sioux Falls, South Dakota: that the city's growth provided wide-open opportunity for a steady flow of migrants from the smaller-town Plains regions and from troubled areas overseas, which the broad-shouldered city was remarkably successful in absorbing;
    • In Burlington, Vermont: that people had deliberately come to a special place to create special circumstances;
    • In Eastport, Maine: that the handful of people who remained would do whatever it took to make the place survive; and now  ...
    • In Redlands, California: that a place considered boring and tacky in the world's eyes was in fact special and precious, thanks to wise decisions by its founders and forebears -- and that its current residents, beneficiaries of this heritage, had an obligation to live up to that past standard.

    That is enough for now. Tomorrow, before the Marketplace broadcast, I'll try to do a feature on one of the clearest examples of this civic self-understanding in Redlands: a fourth-generation farmer who, after a successful two-decade telecom career overseas, decided that his real business and personal destiny was to take over the family citrus-tree acreage and try to make a remote city a center of local-food consciousness. 

  • Inside the Packing House

    Viewing an ordinary fruit with new respect.

    I mentioned yesterday that it was surprisingly odd to visit, as a reporter, a place I thought I knew by heart. It turns out that I didn't -- or that it has changed, or that you see different things this way, or some combination of the above. In any case I am seeing things in Redlands, California, that I hadn't seen through the years of my youth. Overall they are encouraging.

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    Yesterday we went out with the Marketplace crew to see the last operating fruit-packing house in Redlands, and for that matter in all of (enormous) San Bernardino County. When I was growing up, there must have been 20 of these operations within the city itself. Since then the citrus groves have largely -- though not completely, as we'll explain --  moved to cheaper land and larger tracts in California's Central Valley. And as computerization has come to the packing houses, a single facility can handle as much fruit as three or four of them would have done in the 1960s. Volume is high and times are good for the Redlands Foothill Groves packing house, we were told, as it handles fruit from a wider geographical range of groves for a still-growing global market. But it's the only one that is left.

    As a teenager I'd earned money picking oranges, which is unbelievably difficult and skill-demanding work, and managing smudge pots on cold nights. But until this week I  had never been inside a packing houses.

    We had a tour of this one, courtesy of its manager, Manuel Martinez, which was impressive in two ways. One was the speed, volume, intensity, and industrial scale of the process as a whole. The other was the combination of early machine-age and recent computer-age technologies embodied there.

    In the first category: belts, bins, pulleys, boxes, and other devices to handle huge quantities of freshly picked fruit, plus the human inspectors and sorters who judge the oranges as they go by and pack them accordingly. In the second: computerized scanners that quickly conduct 360-degree views of every one of the millions of oranges that speed along on a belt, to detect any blemish or color variation.

    You'll hear the sound of the packing house, and the narration of Manuel Martinez, in Marketplace's report on Friday. Here is some idea of how the place looks, and why it is oddly reminiscent of the site we visited exactly four months earlier, the Padnos Scrap Metal facility in Holland, Michigan.

    Manuel Martinez (white shirt); Kai Ryssdal (tan pants) and Marketplace crew; Atlantic rep (black sweater) at Redlands Foothill Groves packing house.

    At the Padnos scrap metal works, a combination of visual, magnetic, and other sensors, plus human monitors, separated a mixed slurry of material into usable scrap. As described here. In the packing house, visual and other sensors, plus human monitors, separated oranges into different grades -- based on size, color, blemishes, etc. 

    As these oranges zoom by, each one has been scanned from all directions by a computer, and based on size and color they are sent to different conveyer belts.

    Then the choice ones are re-inspected and re-graded by a team working by eye, most of whom (we heard) had made their careers at this packing house.


    After they've all been sorted -- the smallest or most blemished sent off to juicing facilities, the largest and most lustrous prepared for shipment to markets in Asia -- the oranges are packed into their shipping cartons, each with a label indicating the grove that it came from and when it was packed. The oranges bound for the national and global markets go out under the Sunkist brand.

    A Sunkist inspector takes sample boxes from the line and checks the oranges for size, appearance, and quality when cut and tested.

    Most are put in cartons, but some go in large containers for sale at grocery stores or Wal-Mart.

    I have seen oranges all my life, and have had a sense of how hard it was to grow and protect the trees and to harvest their fruit when ready. Now I have a sense of the additional complexity of bringing each individual orange to market. I will view them now with even more respect, as I do Manuel Martinez and his crew for what they do. More coming soon from Marketplace. [All photos by Deborah Fallows.]

  • Today's Aviation Videos

    A disaster that didn't happen, a challenge that's just beginning, and other aerial tales.

    The image above, the aviation- & retro-California-themed label for one of Hangar 24's popular beers, is the slender-reed connection between where I am at the moment, reporting in Redlands, and the videos and items below. 

    1) "Just stop!" What air traffic controllers do. The video below, via our friends at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), depicts an incident nearly 15 years old. It covers a near-disastrous misjudgment at the airport in Providence, RI back in 1999. It still seems very fresh in offering a vivid and gripping view of how aviation procedures (usually) work and how they might break down. 

    The heroes of this episode are very clearly the members of the USAir crew who decide, at around time 3:30 of the video, to refuse a take-off clearance and instead stay put until they figure out which planes are where on the fog-obscured runways, which the tower controller simply can't see through the mist. A similar decision by any of the crews in Tenerife back in 1977 might have saved nearly 600 lives.

    [UPDATE: as my wife has written, our respect for air traffic controllers has only increased as we've been flying around the country. But if you listen to the Providence event, you'll see that the controller doesn't come across as the "better safe than sorry" participant -- in clear contrast to the USAir crew. So the subhead of this item is meant two ways: usually they do a very good job, and occasionally they too err. This in response to some pilots who have written in to say that no one would use this episode as a model of ATC behavior. I agree.] 

    2) "Will he make it?" The next endurance challenge. Over the months we've followed the achievements of Solar Impulse, the Swiss-made experimental airplane that has flown cross-country, round the clock, and through long hours of darkness without using any fossil fuel or external power at all. Previous updates from 2010, 2012, and 2013.

    As the Solar Impulse team prepares for a trans-Atlantic flight (and eventual round-the-world journey), here is one of several videos about the preparation:

    3) Silver Comet vs. the World. One of my big themes, from Free Flight onward, is that the most remarkable aspect of America's transportation patrimony is one most Americans ignore: Our landscape is dotted with 4,000+ small airports, probably more than the rest of the world combined. 

    The WSJ (paywalled) has a report on one of the implications: the efforts of the small Silver Comet field (aka Paulding), outside Atlanta, to absorb a tiny share of Delta's flights into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world's busiest airport. OK, this may be more about Delta's corporate strategies than larger transport questions, but it's an interesting story. While I'm at it, here is another WSJ item (also paywalled), on China's version of similar struggles.

    I don't have a video for this third item, but instead here is an interactive map from our friends and partners at Esri, based on the FAA's "VFR Sectional" charts from the entire country. It starts with a view of the Atlanta area, with the main airport shown with a big red bulls-eye and the smaller one shown in blue. You can scroll around, zoom in or out, and search for any city. The map takes quite a while to refresh, as the very complex chart images load from the FAA's servers. But you'll be able to see the local small airport near almost any place you choose. The ones with control towers are shown in blue; the ones without (the great majority) are in magenta, a word I use only in this context.  

    By the way, there is a great NASA guide to reading FAA charts here. Feel free to use it in connection with the maps above.
  • North Korea, Iran, and the NPT

    Correcting an earlier post.

    The "Great Successor," via Kyodo and NPR.

    A few days ago I recommended an article on China by Shlomo Ben-Ami and one on Iran by Robert Hunter, both of which hold up well and which, if you missed them, I again suggest you read. And if you'd like a little more in Ben-Ami's vein, you might check out this dispatch today from China's state-controlled Global Times, about why Westerners should stop lecturing China about press freedom and so on:

    Information security is among China's core security concerns. China is willing to communicate with the world, but it won't yield its own agenda-setting rights to the Western media... 

    Chinese authorities are breaching their duty if they allow Western media to work in China unchecked.

    Wow. Or Sigh, depending on your mood. The "reform" administration of Xi Jinping really is digging in its heels. It is going to be a tough time ahead.

    In that same earlier post I also quoted a reader, Carlyn Meyer, who was worried that North Korea's rush to nuclear armament was being used as the main historical analogy for thinking and worrying about Iran. The situations were different for many reasons, she argued, importantly among them that Iran had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and North Korea "never had."

    That last claim is wrong. North Korea had in fact signed the treaty, but then withdrew as part of advancing its nuclear plans. Here is a sample of many messages I received on that point:

    This is just to add a small - but EXTREMELY critical - correction. North Korea did in fact sign the nuclear NPT in the mid eighties, but then withdrew during the tensions of the mid-nineties. They are the only country to have done this, a point which extremely undercuts the argument your reader was attempting to make....

    For what it's worth, I doubt there will ever be anything remotely like a 'next North Korea.' Another rogue state with weapons of mass destruction? Sure. But one that kidnaps actors and actresses from other countries in order to make domestic films, reverse engineers Mercedes for the ruling elite, and invites Dennis Rodman to visit? I don't think so.

    And, from another reader who is in the nuclear-policy business:

    Perhaps Meyer's point is right overall, even though the reason is wrong. Others have pointed out the differences in the two situations. But at the time of the Agreed Framework, North Korea was a signatory to the NPT. It withdrew because of US failure to hold up its end of the bargain, as you will see if you click that link, or perhaps it would have anyway. 

    In response here is a note from Carlyn Meyer:

    I apologize for the factual mistake.  But it doesn't change my premise.  The comparisons by some politicians equating the current Iran situation with the current N.Korea status are still invalid.  

    North Korea is not a current signer of the NPT.  Iran is.  North Korea has no inspectors on the ground, Iran does.  North Korea is open about having a nuclear weapons program.  US intelligence says Iran hasn't made that committment.  Iran, like North Korea, could certainly pull out of the NPT, stop the current negotiations and kick inspectors out. Then the situations would be comprable.  But that doesn't seem to be Iran's intent.  

    It is still my understanding that the sanctions and P5+1 negotiations are legitimized by Iran's signing and continued acceptance of the NPT.  The situations are not equal.

    This is to close an open loop. Tomorrow morning, will dig into more updates on what's really on my mind, the surprises that await when you visit, as a reporter, a place you thought you "knew" by virtue of having grown up there. It turns out that you Can Go Home Again, mainly to discover that the place is not exactly what you thought. More ahead.

  • Reports From the Road: Hangar 24 and a Student-Run Farm

    The variety of America, chapter 12,825

    It's been a very long day of interviewing and visiting, and before an early start tomorrow and some "real" reports on this next American Futures stop, here's a shot from one of the moments that makes the reporting life worthwhile.

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    Early this morning Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal (and team) and I got to talk with Ben Cook, head of the Hangar 24 craft brewery in Redlands, California, about how his little company has become one of the fastest-growing startups in its field. Five-plus years ago, when I first began visiting, Hangar 24 was a two-person operation in a wasteland adjoining a tiny airport, very far from any big city. Now it employs more than 130 people, has had annual growth rates of between 50% and 100%, and is expanding its footprint all over the West. More of its background on the airwaves and in this space soon. (That's Cook on the right, Ryssdal in the middle, local guide on the left, at the H24 brewery.) 

    A few miles away, my wife and I visited the Grove School, a local charter school that, among other things, operates its own student-run farm. A locally owned grocery store had just sent in an order for fresh lettuce, which the students were picking -- and which we'll look for in the store tomorrow.

    Meanwhile other students in the school were working through their math problems:

    This is a different range of activities from what I recall of my school days here. My wife Deb, who has reported on schools in Eastport, Sioux Falls, Burlington, and elsewhere will follow up here. Signing off now, and getting ready for tomorrow's interviews and reports.

  • When Rails Make the Difference, From Down East to the Southwest

    The loss of rail service into a small Maine town has been crippling.  By John Tierney

    [Introductory note from JF: As mentioned two days ago, my wife and I are now in Southern California, in my original home town of Redlands, applying the "what makes a city resilient?" test to a place I'm well familiar with. I'm not sure whether it makes me feel better (about the processes of journalism) or worse (about myself and life in general) to realize that I've learned things in several days of interviews I never heard while growing up. 

    One of those things, to be explored this week with our Marketplace partners, involves the complex role of transportation in making, breaking, and refashioning local economies. There will be a lot more to say, in this space and on the radio, about the specific place of railroads in what we think of as the car-based life of Southern California. This include the historic role of the Santa Fe "Kite-Shaped Track," as shown above, which ran from Los Angeles out to Redlands and whose orange-hauling freight trains were still running when I was growing up. The local station, amazingly, is still preserved and looks like this:

    Redlands Santa Fe station. Armantrout Architects, via Press Enterprise.

    In keeping with the principle that the real goal is to draw connections among developments in different parts of the country, here is John Tierney's installment on what railroads, and their lack, have meant for prospects in our previous stop at the other extreme of the country, in Eastport, Maine. The interactions between Eastport's rail situation and its efforts to remake its economy are also part of our upcoming print-magazine article. Now, over to John.]

    By John Tierney

    You don’t need to have a degree in regional planning to know that transportation modes can make a big difference in the economic vitality of a city. 

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    The small cities visited so far in the American Futures series provide cases in point. We’ve seen what the arrival of the railroads meant for the phenomenal growth of Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the 1880s – and how the greater difficulty of getting rail service into Rapid City, SD, helps explain its historic economic disadvantage, relative to Sioux Falls. 

    Burlington grew to be the largest city in Vermont because its position on Lake Champlain enabled it to be a center for trade, and when railroad service arrived there, it helped turn Burlington into a busy lumbering and manufacturing center. And some of the most important industries in Holland, Michigan, have thrived over time in part because of that same combined presence of water transport (via Lake Michigan) and rail connections. 

    A different story emerges from tiny Eastport (population 1330), located on the coast at Maine’s northeastern tip. Unlike the other cities profiled so far, Eastport has seen its population decline over the years; the population now is one-quarter of what it was in 1900. And Eastport has suffered economically to a greater extent than the other cities we’ve looked at. Some of Eastport’s decline and hardship can be traced to its loss, in the 1970s, of a railroad connection.

    The herald of Maine Central Railroad

    Maine Central Railroad, which had been losing money on its branch line to Eastport, finally abandoned the line in 1978. The rail service had been important to Eastport in the days when it was home to sardine canneries, but that industry had long since faded, so Maine Central pulled the plug. The trains stopped running, and in 1980 the track was pulled up from the rail bed. 

    Timing, they say, is everything. The port facility that is now one of Eastport’s chief economic engines was still in the early planning stages in the 1970s. So, when the town had rail service, it lacked a port facility. And now that it has a port facility, it lacks rail service. Eastport has had each, but not both at the same time. Both modes of transportation are required to make Eastport into the kind of heavily trafficked port it aspires to be. Now, as one port observer has noted, “Eastport is just about the only port without a rail connection in the country.” 

    If people in Maine could go back in time and undo the decision to abandon the rail link to Eastport, they would. But they’re left with the current reality, which is that the impediments to rebuilding the rail line are formidable: the costs would be high, because not only are the tracks gone, but also much of the right-of-way has been sold off, so a new route to the port would have to be found if rail service were to return. 

    A strong push for finding a way to restore the rail line has been coming for years from the Eastport Port Authority and its allies. The Port director, Chris Gardner, says restoration of the rail line would be “a game-changer” for Eastport and for all of Washington County, Maine’s poorest. 

    Gardner is probably right about that. Eastport has great natural advantages as a port. The most easterly port of the U.S., at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy on the Canadian border, Eastport is the closest U.S. port to Europe by one day. 

    But that hoped-for economic revival will be difficult to pull off without a rail link, and some skeptics are not certain that even the presence of rail service would be sufficient to spell a strong rebound for Eastport. 

    Sunrise Trail photo from DiscoverDowneastMaine.com

    Meanwhile, as efforts continue to restore rail service, the old railroad corridor, like many of its kind around the country, has undergone a rails-to-trail transformation as part of the Downeast Sunrise Trail. Now, visitors and residents use the trail for a full range of outdoor activities like hiking, bicycling, snowmobiling, etc.  

    Welcome as the trail is, as a regional amenity and as a component of the area’s social-capital mix, the Maine Department of Transportation made it clear when drafting its management plan for the corridor, that “the number one priority is to preserve and protect the corridor for future rail use. The . . . trail is intended to provide an asset to the communities in the interim, until rail returns.”

    At least that posture shows some eagerness to avoid the mistakes of the 1970s when a sad lack of foresight led to the abandonment of the Eastport rail spur. As Skip Rogers, manager of Federal Marine Terminals in Eastport has said, “We’re going to have to be smart about transportation in the future.”  That’s an admonition that communities around the country should take to heart.

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

  • American Futures Heads West

    Back on the road and in the air.

    Through the month of November, my part of the American Futures convoy was in the hangar, because of two long-haul business trips I was making, to Australia and China. John Tierney and Deb Fallows have been skillfully reporting in the meantime. 

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    Very soon, the next issue of the magazine will appear with an article about our project, and starting this weekend we'll have reports online and with our Marketplace partners about the next stop along the way. 

    This next town is different from others in two ways. For one, we flew here via a United Airlines Airbus, rather than a Cirrus SR22 -- it would be a very long way in a little airplane.

    For another, this is a place I'm trying to look at through a new lens after knowing it all my life. Now that we have considered examples of resilience and of comebacks, successful or merely attempted, in South Dakota, western Michigan, northern Vermont, and far Down East Maine, we're asking some of the same questions about the small town where I grew up, in the baking and once memorably-mocked (by Joan Didion) "Inland Empire" of Southern California.

    The surrounding area of San Bernardino and Riverside counties has been one of the ground zeros of the subprime-mortgage disaster. The town of Redlands itself has long prided itself on an unusually high level of "social capital" -- parks, libraries, concerts, civic groups, historic homes, a university -- but has suffered its own setbacks. My half-joking shorthand for my hometown has long been "the poor man's Pasadena," not because Redlands is so poor (it isn't) but because Pasadena, from Caltech to its Craftsman-architecture neighborhoods, is the grander version of how this small town looks.

    A century ago Redlands was one of the world's famed orange-growing centers, as shown above. In the 1960s, which when I think about it was half a century ago, orange grove jobs, as a picker and as a smudge-pot handler, provided my first paying work. But most of those groves are now paved over, and the remainder are in a struggle against a new biological threat.

    Without anyone talking much about it, this was a military-dependent town, which had to reconsider a lot of things when a giant nearby Air Force base closed down. Now it is the improbable home to a tech company that is a powerhouse around the world but not yet a household name in the United States. This is our other American Futures partner, Esri, and its creation story -- why, exactly, its thousands of employees are based here, so far from San Francisco or Seattle or Cambridge; and how they have changed an insular place by arriving -- is part of what we have come back to find out.

    Over the next week-plus, we'll be comparing what we've found in this small(ish) town with its analogues in Holland, Sioux Falls, Burlington, and Eastport. Then, after a holiday break with our children, we'll be back into the Cirrus and headed south, for stops in the Carolinas, Georgia, northern Florida, and Mississippi and Alabama. Watch this space. And eat navel oranges.


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