Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The American Futures Blog
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On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.

Pro-suffrage cartoon by Hy Mayer in Puck, in 1915. That was during the Progressive wave that followed the original Gilded Age. (Wikimedia)

This afternoon at the annual conference of New America, in Washington, I heard Sen. Elizabeth Warren give a speech about how to deal with the economic dislocations of the “gig economy.”

The text is here (in PDF), and it’s actually worth reading. “Actually” in that it was neither just a bleat/complaint about the injustices of the new tech economy nor a simple assurance that technology and innovation will solve all the problems they create. (Ie, that the long-term arc of creative destruction will always bend toward greater creativity.)

Instead Warren addressed the question I said was on my mind, at the end of my March issue article. That was the Second Gilded Age question: if the dislocations, the inequalities, the injustices, but also the possibilities of this era of high-speed technical change parallel those of 125 years ago, is there any hope or guidance to be drawn from the responses of the Progressive era through the New Deal?

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AP website, May 18, 2016

Previously in the Hmmmm series, please see this, this, this, this, and this. The theme of the poll reported in today’s AP story is summed up thus:

Americans … are strikingly pessimistic about the national economy yet comparatively upbeat about their own financial circumstances.

Just 42 percent of adults describe the U.S. economy as good, according to a survey released Wednesday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But two-thirds say their own households are faring well.

Ongoing theme in this space: the United States faces serious economic, political, and social challenges in this, its Second Gilded Age. But surprisingly large numbers of individuals, families, communities, and institutions feel as if the parts of the country they experience directly are figuring out ways to deal with the challenges, rather than just being crushed. Meanwhile the media and political temper of the times leads many people to assume that their local successes must be fortunate anomalies in a landscape that overall is bleak.

Serious challenges, yes; bleakness, no — this is something people recognize about their own communities, and I think should about the country.

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Previously in the Hmmmm series, please see this, this, this, this. Now a very interesting analysis from John Sides in the WaPo:

From the Washington Post.

Short version of his analysis: most Americans think that they themselves are doing better, but the country as a whole is going to hell:

What is equally striking about this election year is how little this growing economic optimism has affected broader assessments of the direction of the country.

Matthew Yglesias in Vox says more about John Sides’s findings too. Including this point on how there can be a politically salient expression of rage by some part of the electorate, when on the whole Americans are not feeling betrayed or left behind:

Obviously an average is an average (it is worth noting that the positive trend is evident for all income groups), and in a big country you can still have enormous pockets of anger and discontent alongside an overall atmosphere of placidity.

In most domains that aren't politics, attracting a passionate minority following is a perfectly good business strategy. It's a great way to secure ratings for a television show, for example, whether it's The Apprentice or The Sean Hannity Show. But in politics you need a majority, and it doesn't seem to be the case that the majority is feeling some historically anomalous level of economic discontent.

More explanation another time (I’m on the road overseas) — or, you can check out my March issue article, or the other items in this thread. Sketched-out hypothesis: having been caught by surprise (as I was too) by Trump’s popularity, many reporters over-interpreted it to believe that most Americans (as opposed to an important minority) were as convinced as he was that the country was in ashes and that nothing went right any more.

I’ve mentioned several times how interested I’ve been in the American Prairie Reserve, in northern Montana. (And, yes, this is what I’d prefer to talk about on this latest primary-election night.) The beauty of the place is obvious, though still surprising to see in person. For me the fascination involves the match between what its creators are trying to do, and the era in which they’re trying to do it.

Their goal is to create what would be the largest natural reserve in the lower 48 states, of more than three million acres (or more than 5,000 square miles), and  restore it to something like its pre-Lewis and Clark wildlife and vegetation, complete with large herds of free-roaming bison and other animals. Such grand efforts would be challenging at any time, but they are harder now than 130+ years ago, when Yellowstone Park was being created and human settlement had not yet left such a mark.

The APR’s route toward this end is a thoroughly modern “all of the above” approach. In part it relies on already protected public lands, with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the banks of the Missouri at the heart of the envisioned reserve. In part it means gathering raising money to buy land for permanent protection. In part it is collaboration with the tribes from the large, adjoining reservations: Fort Belknap to the west and Fort Peck to the east. And in very large part it means using market incentives to enlist neighboring ranchers in the effort. An organization called Wild Sky pays ranchers a premium for cattle raised with wildlife-friendly practices, from special kinds of fencing to a tolerance for wildlife and predators. In turn it sells Wild Sky beef as a premium brand at stores and restaurants around the country.

Last week the APR announced a new “Ken Burns Prize” program, named for the documentary filmmaker and designed to honor people whose work has “advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit.” I talked with Burns this morning by phone, to ask him how he got connected with the APR, and what this prize was about. A lightly edited version of our talk is below.

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During our West Coast travels for American Futures reports in the winter of 2014-2015, my wife Deb and I were based at the University of Redlands, in southern California. From there we did reports on neighboring San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno, and Winters in California; Ajo, Arizona; central Oregon; and other locales.

This weekend Deb was back at the university as one of their honorees at the College of Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony. In the clip above you see the U of R’s president Ralph Kuncl and dean Fred Rabinowitz introducing Deb and describing her writing about China, America, and other topics. Then she speaks for three minutes about lessons for life, working in a reference to the importance of microbreweries. She ends with a message all young grads need to hear (“Call your parents! They miss you”), and then turns the stage over to Jane Goodall, with a powerfully understated commencement speech about environmental responsibility.

The video above covers the whole three-hour span. It should be cued to start at around time 1:05:00 with Deb’s part in the ceremony; Jane Goodall is introduced starting around time 1:15:00, and she gets a big laugh out of the entire crowd for a riff that begins at around 1:21:30.

Congrats to all!

The Dequindre Cut in Detroit, one of the civic projects that has just won support in a nationwide competition sponsored by the Knight Foundation. (Detroit Riverfront Conservancy)

A big question in national politics this year is what exactly “engagement” means, beyond showing up at rallies. As Yoni Appelbaum pointed out last week, Donald Trump supporters are notable for their low level of other forms of civic engagement: clubs, teams, volunteer groups, or anything that involves being more than a spectator. Although Bernie Sanders still has fewer votes and delegates than Hillary Clinton, his success in the caucuses suggests how engaged his supporters have been — and so the question for the Democratic party and the progressive cause is how many of them stay engaged this fall and beyond. And so on.

A big ongoing theme of the “American Futures” reports my wife Deb and I have presented is how different you would feel about circa-2016 American society if you observed it community by community, than if you mainly watched the political rallies and debates. In nearly every place we’ve gone, it’s been easy rather than hard to find groups and individuals devoting time, money, passion, ingenuity to improving various aspects of their civic life. You can read about it here.

Thus I was very interested to see the announcement yesterday from the John S and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami, whose motto emphasizes its support for “informed and engaged communities,” of the winners of its Knight Cities Challenge Grant.

This Knight program is in its second cycle. Two years ago, it chose 32 winners. This time, it awarded a total of $5 million to 37 winning programs, chosen from 158 finalists and more than 4400 total entries.

According to Knight, they judged the entries on three main criteria:

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Postcard of the old Clyde Iron Works in its prime, via Perfect Duluth Day.

As part of the unfolding saga of start-up businesses as the crucial creators of new jobs, and of particular start-ups like craft breweries (along with tech incubators, arts companies, manufacturing “maker spaces,” and others) in bringing life to fringe areas of recovering cities, I talked about the civic and economic role of the Bent Paddle Brewery in Duluth, Minnesota.

Reader Peter Hatinen of Minneapolis says that Duluth is actually a test case of the Jane Jacobs-like process of distributed, organic revival that is happening a number of the cities we have visited and written about. The step-by-step evolution he’s describing is worth presenting in detail, because it has such resonance elsewhere.

And for anyone who hasn’t (yet) spent time in Duluth, a city I love and have visited at least a dozen times since the late 1990s, it’s important to understand its economic background. Through the past generation Duluth has fit anyone’s definition of a struggling Rust Belt city. Its grand homes and faded-glory downtown buildings were from a lost era of wealth from timber, ore and grain shipments, and heavy manufacturing. Through much of the late-20th century Duluth’s factories closed, its downtown decayed, its population aged and shrank.

Recently a lot of has been changing, fast, as I sketched out in my recent cover story. Peter Hatinen describes more of what is going on:

After time in New York City and Boston, my wife and I settled in Minneapolis.  Much of my family grew up and settled around Duluth.  Since settling in Minneapolis ourselves, my wife and I have spent nearly every other weekend in Duluth during the summers, delighting in its restaurants, breweries, and distillery.  We then pay penance for our indulgences by sailing, rowing, and running or biking the city's countless trails.

Duluth’s renaissance has been remarkable.

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Citizen University (Alan Alabastro Photography)

Here are some recent developments that are related to the “America Is Putting Itself Back Together” argument in our March issue. They’re also connected to the subject of my post earlier today: that an under-appreciated axis in American politics and culture is between those who think, like the woman at the Trump rally, that “everything in America is terrible” and getting worse, and those who agree with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California that “the nation is alive from the bottom up.”

You can guess which one rings truer to me.

But let’s hear from others:

Wichita: Robert Litan, who for ten years was a senior official at the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, writes that his new home town is finding ways to apply a cooperative approach to its development. Sample:

Shortly after moving back to Wichita about two years ago, I became aware of an ongoing communitywide effort, the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, which has brought together business, university and community leaders across eight industry “clusters” in 10 counties in south-central Kansas. BREG’s mission: to find and implement ways of cooperating to enhance innovation, develop workforces, and expand growth opportunities for businesses in this region.

Litan says he assumed this talk of “collaboration” was just so much sloganeering. But ...

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From Donald Trump’s rally in Bethpage, Long Island, this week. The saying on that sign is not one of the quotes I have in mind. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Quote one, from Michael Cohen’s report for the Boston Globe on the big Trump rally in Long Island. Emphasis added:

A smiling old man proudly displayed to me a T-shirt that read “Trump: Get On Board or Get Run Over.” Another read: “Up Yours Hillary.” When I asked the man to pose for a picture, his wife pulled me over and told me “everything in America is terrible” — the economy, health care, the military. “Don’t you worry about your kids future?”

Quote two, in Thomas Fuller’s report in the NYT of a unanimous vote by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mandate six weeks of paid parental leave for public and private employees within the city. (Private employees must have worked at their firm for 180 days; the rules will apply, starting next year, to firms with more than 50 employees, and eventually to firms with 20 or more.) Again emphasis added:

Scott Wiener, the supervisor who introduced the measure, said that San Francisco lawmakers had chosen to take up the issue partly because there was little hope of change at the national level.

“Whether it’s paid parental leave, infrastructure investment, minimum wage, paid sick leave or addressing carbon emissions, we know the states have to act,” Mr. Wiener said in an interview before the vote….

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CNBC poll results, from Steve Liesman report on April 4

A big theme in our ongoing reports from across the United States, and of my story in our March issue, is that Americans feel much better about the part of the country they can observe first-hand, than about the conditions elsewhere they hear or read about.

That is: According to almost everyone, America is going to hell. But according to most people, conditions in their city / region / family / company involve real challenges but are generally moving in the right direction.

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Bryon Tonnis, Karen Tonnis, Laura Mullen, and Colin Mullen, the founders of Bent Paddle Brewing company in Duluth, Minnesota. Their company’s story illustrates the economic patterns that Jeff Alworth is describing. (James Fallows)

If you’re going to subscribe to only one magazine — well, really you should be subscribing to more! But you could start with The Atlantic, and then move on to include, as I have, All About Beer on your list (subscribe!).

I mention it now on general principles, and because its site now features an interesting piece by Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible, extending my premise that craft breweries have become a no-joke indicator of larger civic revival. This is how he explains it, in a way that rings absolutely true to what my wife Deb and I have seen from Georgia to California to Mississippi to Minnesota:

[Fallows] suggests that the appearance of a craft brewery is one effect of community health—but I’d argue that it’s at least in part the cause of a community’s vitality.

Breweries are industrial operations, and they’re expensive. Beer is a mass beverage, and even making it on a brewpub scale means you have to have quite a bit of space for the brewhouse, fermentation, and storage. All that equipment costs a lot, and real estate does, too. When you’re spending a quarter- or half-million dollars on equipment, you can’t afford expensive commercial space. So breweries end up on the fringes, in bad parts of town where the rent is cheap. That alone is the first step of revitalization. [Emphasis in first paragraph was from Alworth. This emphasis is added by me.]

But breweries aren’t like the average industrial plant. They are people magnets, bringing folks in who are curious to try a pint of locally made IPA. In fairly short order, breweries can create little pockets of prosperity in cities that can (and often do) radiate out into the neighborhood. Pretty soon, other businesses see the bustle and consider moving in, too.

It doesn’t hurt that breweries often find run-down parts of towns that have great buildings. Once a brewery moves in and refurbishes an old building, it reveals the innate promise of adjacent buildings to prospective renters.

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Downtown Fresno mural                                                                   (James Fallows)

Here are some generally positive developments from places we’ve visited in our travels.

Fresno: This evening Fresno, California, held its big “State of Downtown” event. You can see the details here. As we’ve reported over the years, Fresno’s bet on re-doing its downtown, made by Mayor Ashley Swearengin and many of the local business and civic leaders, is one of the most consequential in the country. You can hear tonight the update on how it’s going. Here’s a report on last year’s State of Downtown event.

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Some of the startups at Bridgeworks (JF)

Allentown: Allentown, Pennsylvania, is two or three years ahead of Fresno on the downtown renovation cycle. In common with many other places we’ve been, it has an ambitious manufacturing-oriented startup/incubator zone, known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.

Bridgeworks has just released a report on the new businesses that have started there. You can read it here. There’s some much less positive news also coming out of Allentown, as you can read here. We’ll go back there to follow up.

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