Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The American Futures Notebook
Show Description +

On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.

Show 1 Newer Notes

Why Not Dodge? Why Not Stockton?

Citizens of Stockton at city council meeting considering library expansion "Raising Literacy," Robert Dawson

I mentioned yesterday that several local initiatives could mean as much to their communities or states as the outcome of most national races. The two historical examples I naturally think of are from California, Propositions 13 and 187. Prop 13, which was passed nearly 40 years ago, strictly capped property taxes—and in so doing helped shift California’s public schools from among the best-funded in the country, as they were in my school days, to among the worst.

Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994, limited public services for illegal/undocumented immigrants. It was a Republican-backed measure, championed by then-governor Pete Wilson, and was very unpopular with Latinos. You can’t prove exact cause and effect, but there’s no denying this change: In the decades leading up to Prop 187, the California of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was a reliably Republican state in presidential elections. Since then, coincident with its growing Latino population, California has been the Democrats’ most important bulwark. (In the 11 presidential elections from 1948 to 1992, Harry Truman through Bill Clinton, California went Democratic only twice. In every election since then the Democrat has won, with margins that keep going up.)

Two of the measures I mentioned yesterday were city-wide. One is San Bernardino’s long-overdue reform of its dysfunctional city charter, via Measure L on today’s ballot. The other is Stockton’s attempt, through its Measure M, to approve a very small (quarter-cent) sales tax increase to fund libraries and recreation centers for young people and families who now badly lack them.

Stockton, once a site of commercial and industrial wealth, has become one of California’s poorer cities. Many of its people are immigrants; the population mix is roughly “40/30/20/10,” or roughly 40% Latino, 30% white, 20% Asian, and 10% black. “We’re the most diverse medium-sized city in America,” Mas’ood Cajee, a Stockton dentist who is one of the leaders of the Yes on M movement, told me yesterday.

Another gigantic turbine blade is delivered in Spearville, Kansas Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

At its peak, nearly one century ago in 1920, the coal-mining industry employed nearly 800,000 people in the United States. Decade by decade, as America’s population has swelled and its economy has grown, and as total coal output as also increased, employment in coal mines has steadily fallen. (The one exception was in the late 1970s, immediately after the first “oil shocks,” when the number of miners rose from about 195,000 to about 230,000. By 1985, it was back down to 170,000.)

Presidential administrations come and go; energy and environmental policies change; but the one-way pressure of technology is such that the barely 80,000 people who now work in U.S. mines produce vastly more coal than 800,000 did a century ago. It’s no “war on coal.” It’s what has happened in the world since the dawn of the industrial age.

But of course the plight of the coal industry, which is all too real for the people affected, comes up frequently in political and economic discussions—compared with, say, the situation of dental hygienists, of whom there are more than twice as many as coal miners. Or of bus drivers, of whom there are nearly ten times as many.

Or, crucially, of those employed in the energy industries that come after coal: solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, and other renewable sources. Employment there is growing much faster than it’s shrinking in coal, yet somehow this is barely part of our political or state-of-America awareness. Employment in solar alone nearly doubled in just three years, from around 120,000 in 2012 to around 240,000 in 2015. That’s three times as many solar-industry employees as coal miners, but they have at best one-third the mind-share in media and politics.

This is understandable: what’s familiar, and fading, is easier to recognize than what’s new and just taking form. But it does distort the way Americans think (and feel) about so many things, starting with the overall balance between decline and renewal in the country.

***

Wind turbine display in western Kansas (Nic Pollock / The Atlantic)

This is the set-up for the next video in The Atlantic’s election-season American Futures coverage. This one is from our familiar and favored stomping grounds of Erie, Pennsylvania; Fresno and environs in California; and Dodge City and neighboring Spearville in western Kansas.

A view of Eastport, with the old sardine cannery, the Tides Institute and Museum of Art, a former bank, a new restaurant, and more. (Courtesy of Tides Institute and Museum of Art)

The Boston Globe had a story over the weekend about the never-say-die small city of Eastport, Maine. As we’ve been chronicling online for the past few years, and in this magazine story in early 2014, Eastport balances the difficulties and the opportunities of its unusual location, at the northeastern extreme of Down East Maine across a strait from Campobello Island in Canada.

Difficulty: it is so far from anyplace else. It’s two-plus hours by car from Bangor, four-plus from Portland. Opportunity: its distant setting is so pristine and beautiful, and so close to both the tidal-power potential of the Bay of Fundy and the touristic and marine-economy potential of the sea.

Sisters originally from Darfur, resettled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The young lady on the left was a proud member of public high school ROTC. Deborah Fallows / the Atlantic

Deb Fallows has a new post up, about what’s actually involved in settling immigrants from Syria—or Somalia or Congo or Bhutan—in the American cities that have taken the lead in doing so. It’s based on our reporting in Sioux Falls, Burlington, Erie, Fresno, Dodge City, and elsewhere. I encourage you to read it on general principles, and for these additional reasons:

1. More and more an axis in this campaign, and in the ongoing struggles to define what comes next for America, is a disagreement over whether America is better as a more racially and culturally diverse society, or as one that is more “traditional” homogeneous society.

Compared with most other developed societies, Americans are more pro-diversity. That is what a major Pew global survey found this year:

Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 2016

But within the United States, Democrats/Clinton supporters are dramatically more comfortable with this kind of change than Republicans and Trump supporters. From another Pew survey:

Pew Research Center, August 2016

If you’d like to see those differences playing themselves out, I invite you to check out (warily) the comments section of Deb’s latest post, in which some people lambaste the menace of outsiders and others welcome them.

***

2. Our experience around the country has been that the more people are exposed to immigrants and refugees, the less panicked they are about them. I won’t try to give you a referenced-and-linked proof of that right now, though I will give a link to this video. I will say that it’s a powerful, consistent impression—and that, for instance, you’ll hear Donald Trump get lustier cheers for “Build that wall!” in New Hampshire or Iowa than you will in Texas or California.

The interior of America was exciting for Albert Bierstadt and the imaginative landscape painters of the 19th century. It's newly exciting, in a different way, now. ('Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains,' Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Smithsonian Institute, via Wikimedia)

1) Meet the Press podcast. Yesterday afternoon I spoke with Chuck Todd for his podcast; the segment has gone up today, and you can find it here on Soundcloud or here from the MTP site.

Mainly we were talking about the election, immigration, the cycles of class friction through American history, the strategic and economic implications of TPP, and so on. But near the end, Chuck (whom I know from his days as editor of Hotline, part of the Atlantic combine) asked me where I’d like to live next.

The premise was: over the years my wife Deb and I, plus our kids when they were little, had lived in a sequence of foreign spots, reporting on what seemed interesting. What and where would be interesting next?

I hadn’t been expecting the question and just said, without thinking, “the interior of the United States.”

By “interior” I meant a shorthand for the places other than the handful of big coastal cities that dominate media awareness and the sense of chic: Boston to DC on the East Coast, Seattle to LA in the west, a courtesy extension to Miami and San Diego, and a smattering of others. Basically this media-mind-map creates a picture of the United States as if it were Australia, with the action all happening along the rim.

Of course a sense of excitement about the rest of the country reflects what Deb and I have been reporting in our travels these past few years, but it actually is something I believe more strongly the more I see. If you were traveling the country wide-eyed and mainly tuned out from the national political news, you would think this is a big, interesting, diverse civilization, in the process of dealing with and beginning to solve the many ills of the era.

Much as I wasn’t expecting the question, Chuck wasn’t expecting the answer, but we agreed and went on to some of the political and economic ramifications thereof.

RJ Messenger (left), successful Erie entrepreneur, at the Radius CoWork space in downtown Erie. Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

I hope you'll check out the second in the series of short films that The Atlantic’s video team has done with my wife Deb and me, as we’ve been on the move around the country during the election year. The first in the series is here, and my item describing it is here.

Both these videos, produced by The Atlantic’s Nic Pollock, are meant to match issues that are prominent in the national campaign level with their city-by-city ramifications. This one has scenes from three cities coping with economic and social dislocations: Erie, Pennsylvania; Dodge City, Kansas; and Fresno, California.

You can see for yourself what it shows. But for me one very powerful theme that comes through is the generational contrast we’ve encountered again and again across the country.

It’s starkest in Erie: people in their 50s and 60s, or older, grew up expecting a steady job in a big factory. The last of those giant factories is slowly closing down—sending most of its jobs not to Mexico or China but to (gasp) Texas—and people who used to work there are mournful. People in their 20s and 30s never expected to have those jobs and are reacting differently. As you will see:

***

To extend a point we’ve made nonstop through these reports since 2013 and in my cover story earlier this year, the dislocations, the polarization, the pain, and the anger of America’s Second Gilded Age are real. But what’s also real is the sense in many (of course not all) parts of the country that a response is possible, that they can be agents of their own destiny, and their community’s, rather than just objects of crushing outside forces.

Entrepreneur Alicia De La Torre, of Dodge City, Kansas Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

Over the past year-plus my wife Deb and I have been arguing that the “build a wall!”-style anti-immigration furor in Republican party politics does not match the lived reality of the parts of the United States where immigration is having the biggest and most obvious effect.

That’s part of the case I made in a cover story in March; that I wrote about in Dodge City, Kansas, in July; and that Deb chronicled in a visit with a Syrian refugee family in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August. Through American history, immigration has always been disruptive—at many periods, much more disruptive than it is now. At nearly every point in its history, people already present have viewed whatever group is most recently arrived as “different” and “worse” than the groups that had previously assimilated and generally succeeded. But compared with most other societies, the process of assimilation has continued to grind on in the United States, and overall (as I argue elsewhere) has been to the country’s enormous benefit.    

Now the Atlantic’s video team has put out a great video treatment of this theme. It’s produced by Nic Pollock and was shot this summer in Dodge City, Erie, and also the San Joaquin Valley of California around Fresno.

I’ll have more to say about the video and the theme soon, but for now I say: I hope you’ll watch this.  It’s the first of a series of videos that match national-level rhetoric on an election-year issue with the city-by-city reality of these difficult questions. I hope you find this interesting—and, well, moving, as we did in meeting the families you see here.

Again, think of the actual people you see in this video, as Deb and I cannot help doing, as you listen to the next “build a wall” speech.

Part of the old manufacturing corridor in Erie, Pennsylvania. Manufacturing is still underway in many of these buildings, and the city is in the middle of considering a sweeping plan for economic and civic revitalization. James Fallows

Not to over-personalize, but I feel as if my life in the past few weeks recapitulates the argument my wife Deb and I have been making in our American Futures travels.

When I’ve been embroiled in national politics—which matter!— through magazine articles, or the Trump Time Capsules or Trump Nation series, I completely feel the embroiled-ness, and the embattlement, that this campaign has brought to the nation as a whole.

But then Deb and I get to go back to reporting on the aspects of current American life other than the national political struggle, and find that even now they remain surprisingly positive. (“Positive” in the same sense I argued in my cover story back in March: The country has big problems, but in much of the country, most of the time, people feel as if they are moving forward rather than backward in dealing with them.)

Two examples: Last week at this time, I was in Fresno, California, talking with representatives of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley about the ways their collaborative efforts matched patterns we’d seen elsewhere in the country, from Maine to Mississippi. I also had a chance to see how far and fast work has progressed on re-doing Fresno’s historic Fulton Street Mall, whose saga over the years you can read about starting here and here. The one sad note in Fresno is that Peeve’s Pub, whose founder Craig Scharton has been a central figure in Fresno’s re-imagining of itself, and whose ups and downs I’ve tried to chronicle, is in a down phase and has closed its doors. It is missed.

This afternoon I will be in Erie, Pennsylvania—which I mean to compliment by thinking of it as a Fresno of the east—for the “Metro 100” conference on the city’s future, co-hosted by Erie’s Jefferson Educational Society and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (which I’ve covered in a previous post). That conference is followed by an evening public session from the Jefferson on actually implementing Erie’s new civic-revival plan. If you’re in the area, come on by!

A collaboration of libraries and communities around the country Outside The Lines

During our American Futures tour around the country over the past three years, Jim and I have seen libraries, one after another, stretching to engage the people in their communities. They sometimes work in surprising and quite un-library-like ways, at least by traditional measures.

For example, libraries become offices for entrepreneurs and start-ups. They are safe places for children, and sometimes offer supervised homework help and even meals.  Librarians learn how to help patrons with health issues and personal financial challenges.

Libraries are hubs of technology, from helping library users print documents to sponsoring Maker Spaces. And they are centers for the community, providing space for citizenship classes or a corner for seed-lending programs for avid gardeners.

This week, more than 250 libraries and organizations around the country, and actually the world, are busy broadcasting the message of the new relevance of libraries in people’s communities and lives.

Outside the Lines is a week-long celebration of creative library events and experiences to introduce, or re-introduce libraries to their communities. The idea grew from a collaboration between passionate Colorado library directors and marketers, including the Colorado State Library and Anythink Libraries, a public library system in Adams County, Colorado, Erica Grossman of Anythink described to me.

A cowboy with his herd in Maine, en route to Turkey. courtesy Quoddy Tides

Last night my wife Deb put up a report called “Little Town, Big Art.” It’s about how a surprisingly ambitious effort in The Arts—painting, sculpture, photography, drama, music, festivals (like the Pirate Festival underway this weekend), etc.—had given a very small place a much larger economic and cultural presence than it would otherwise have.

Here is a follow-up note on a less artsy aspect of that same place, Eastport, Maine. As I mentioned in this item, “The World Comes to a Tiny Town,” one of the ways in which this part of Down East Maine was connected to the world was by shipping pregnant cows across the Atlantic, mainly to Turkey. That business has become yet another casualty of the horrific warfare in Syria and its spillover effects into Turkey.

Bob Godfrey of Eastport, one of whose careers has been as a photographer, sends an email about the kind of surprise the pregnant cattle brought to his town:

Downtown Eastport, from above, on our previous visit James Fallows

Early in 2014, I wrote a magazine article about the 1,300 residents of Eastport, Maine, with the title “The Little Town That Might.” The theme was that this tiny settlement, on the farthest extreme of Down East Maine just one mile across a strait from Canada’s famous Campobello Island, was trying in every conceivable way to invent a viable economic and cultural future for itself.

It had invested heavily in its very deep-water port (because of the Maine fjords, it is the deepest on the U.S. Atlantic coast) to handle shipments to customers around the world. It was making itself into an arts and tourism center, including whale-watching and other eco-tourism activities along its spectacular coast.

Head Harbour Light, at the far eastern tip of Campobello Island near Eastport (James Fallows)

It was becoming a major salmon-farming locale, in addition to its lobster and scallop industries. An indefatigable group of local citizens pursued plans to redevelop beautiful-but-tattered buildings downtown. And on through a list that you can read about in that article and a number of accompanying posts.

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There was one more element in the portfolio of Eastport ambitions: a plan to generate electricity from the powerful currents of its Passamaquoddy and Cobscook Bays, which feed into the adjoining and famously tidal Bay of Fundy.

Eastport, Maine, "the little town that might," where we're back for a return look at a city trying to remake itself. James Fallows

My wife Deb and I are on the road again this week, but as a reminder of the ongoing theme:

  • People across the country are aware of the serious economic, political, cultural, social, public-health, infrastructure, environmental, and other problems of contemporary America during this Second Gilded Age;  but
  • in most parts of the country, the possibility of dealing with those problems seems closer at hand, and more encouraging, than it does in national politics.

Updates for today:

1. Syrian Refugees in Erie. Two weeks ago, Donald Trump gave a big, angry speech in Erie, Pennsylvania, about the economic decline of the area and the threat posed in particular by Syrian refugees. Just after that, Deb spent time with a Syrian refugee family in Erie. You can read her report here.

The more we have traveled in parts of America that are actively undergoing ethnic and cultural change—whether western Kansas with its Latino immigrants, or South Dakota with its refugee arrivals, or Allentown, Pennsylvania, as it shifts from Pennsylvania Dutch to Latino, or Holland, Michigan, as it shifts from Dutch-Dutch to a more varied population—the more frequently we have witnessed the ongoing power of the American assimilative process.

Around the world and over the eons, ethnic change and newcomer-adjustment has never been automatic or problem-free. But the process moves on more irresistibly in the United States than in most other societies. And based on what we have seen, in most parts of the country it’s occurring with less tumult and trauma than at many other points in our past. (For instance: 1840s; 1880s-1910s; mid-1960s; early 1980s.)

Deb’s report on the Zkrit family—formerly of Aleppo, now of Erie—conveys part of what we have seen. But so does this response, which came in from a reader in the Midwest:

Is it possible to send the Zkrit family packages, welcoming them? Maybe a PO box?

My wife and I have two girls, 8 and 5, and are heartbroken at what is happening to the Syrian people. We’re blessed to know we’ll never know this type of suffering: for ourselves and for our kids.

Deb put the reader in touch with the refugee-resettlement group in Erie. Obviously this is just one note from just one (generous) family. My point for now is how heavily the anecdotal evidence weighs for us on this same side. Over the years we’ve seen and heard more of this kind of response than the “build a wall” “send ’em back” “we don’t want them here!” tone so familiar from political news.

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2. Where government works, in Oklahoma. When it comes to national voting patterns, Oklahoma is arguably the very most conservative state. The current FiveThirtyEight polls-only reading gives Donald Trump a 99.4 percent chance of victory there. A reader in an Oklahoma city sends this note:

My wife and I were enjoying a libation on the front porch this Sunday evening in the heartland, when we hear someone cry out “Call 911!” We see smoke a few houses down. Within two minutes, the first fire engine. Within 10 minutes, two more, plus police and EMT. [JF: The reader sends a photo of the immediate response, which I’m not using because it would identify the neighborhood.]

After it is clear everything is under control, the fire is out, and the house was empty, we turn to leave. I mention to my neighbors, “Ya know, folks complain about gummint, but look what we just saw happen.” A neighbor replied, “Yep. Gummint works here in *[city name]*...”

And of course by extension it doesn’t work anywhere else.

***

3) Worst place in America. A year ago, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote that by some objective measures the “worst place” to live in America was the tiny city of Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. Of course he’s aware, as everyone is, that other cities could seem “worst” by other measures. San Bernardino, where Deb and I have spent a lot of time, is arguably worse-off than any other place in California. Mississippi usually has more than its share of “worst” lists. Erie is seriously threatening to close its public high schools.

But Red Lake Falls could make its case. Earlier this year, as a journalistic and data-analysis experiment, Ingraham, his wife, and their small children actually moved there. This past week he wrote about what he has found.

By now you can probably guess what’s coming: Ingraham reports that things are actually going better in this “worst” place than you would ever guess from afar. Sample from his story “What life is really like in ‘America’s worst place to live’”:

The data do not tell you about the relentless industriousness of the people here. Everybody seems to have three or four jobs. One of our neighbors runs a beef cattle operation during the day, drives a bulk mail truck between Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., at night, and picks up odd trucking jobs here and there on the side. He and his wife built a lovely stone patio behind their house earlier this summer, which I’ve seen them use twice.

The spirit of industry is shared by the younger generations, too. Shortly after we arrived, our friends who run a tubing business in town offered to see whether any of their high school-age summer staff would be interested in babysitting for us on the side. “A lot of the kids are looking for a second job,” they explained. Throughout the summer, kids have stopped by periodically to ask whether there’s any yardwork that needs doing, to make a few bucks for the county fair.

Even though everyone seems to be holding down multiple jobs, opportunities for additional work abound. Around here, you see “help wanted” signs everywhere—at gas stations and restaurants, even hanging on the window at the Red Lake Falls Gazette, the local newspaper serving the town, which publishes once a week.

Statisticians also have not figured out a great way to capture neighborliness, either. Since we moved here three months ago, folks have gone out of their way to help us feel at home.

Of course I realize (as Ingraham must) that the “everyone has three or four jobs” detail could also be a data point for the wage-slavery of modern America. And of course the pressure on middle-income jobs is the fundamental problem of just about every economy in the world, from America’s to China’s to Egypt’s.

But the part of the country where Ingraham now lives, like many others we have visited, was never based on the high-wage factory jobs whose loss has been so traumatic for former paper-mill workers in northern Maine or former steelworkers in Allentown. I know what Ingraham means in talking about “industriousness,” rather than immiseration, as a way some smaller communities have worked for a long time (it is familiar from my small-town upbringing) and that is not automatically associated with economic resentment or fatalism. The piece is very much worth reading.

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4) The dynamics of news. In the same vein, a reader who I believe lives outside the U.S. writes about the split between widespread pessimism on America’s overall prospects, and much brighter feelings about the parts of America people know first-hand. During the Republican convention, Politico had the headline: “GOP Delegates Say the Economy is Terrible—Except Where They Live.” The reader writes:

If this is a generalized phenomenon, it would seem to be a result of the news and opinion media those folks were ingesting. That is, their view of themselves was sincere and positive but their view of the country as a whole was skewed by the information they were taking in.

The combined reality of each of their data points, however, would actually be that the general malaise we hear about is not supported, at least not by their anecdotal evidence.