Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The American Futures Notebook
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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.

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A Note About Trumpism, From the Real America

Mayor Kevin Heeke of Spearville, Kansas (far left), with Atlantic interview and video team yesterday (Deborah Fallows)

For the past week my wife Deb and I have been in western Kansas — Dodge City mainly, also Garden City, briefly Spearville. There will be a lot more to report in coming days on the economic, cultural, and political news from this part of the country. What you see above is something that touches all of those themes: me talking with Kevin Heeke, the mayor of Spearville, about the hundreds of wind turbines that have transformed the economy of the wheat- and corn-farming regions in this extremely windy part of the country.

But I can’t let this day end without noting the black-versus-white, night-versus-day contrast between the way immigration, especially from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, is discussed in this part of the country where it is actually happening, versus its role in this moment’s national political discussion.

These cities of western Kansas, Dodge City and Garden City, are both now majority-Latino. People from Mexico are the biggest single immigrant group, and they are here mainly for work in the area’s big meat-packing plants. Others are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, and more recently Somalia and Sudan, among other countries. You might think of Kansas as stereotypical whitebread America. It’s pure America, all right — but American in the truest sense, comprising people who have come from various corners of the world to improve their fortunes.

Every single person we’ve met here — Anglo and Latino, African and Burmese and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, male and female, well-educated and barely literate, working three jobs and retired and still in school—of all these people, we’ve asked the same questions. Namely: how has Kansas handled this shift in demography? And how does it sound, in this politically and culturally conservative part of the country, to hear the national discussion about “building a wall,” about making America “a real country again,” of the presumptive Republican nominee saying even today that Americans are “angry over borders, they're angry over people coming into the country and taking over, nobody even knows who they are.”

And every single person we have spoken with — Anglo and Latino and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, and so on down the list — every one of them has said: We need each other! There is work in this community that we all need to do. We can choose to embrace the world, or we can fade and die. And we choose to embrace it. (The unemployment rate in this area, by the way, is under 3 percent, and every business we’ve talked with has “help wanted” notices out.)

This is in small-town western Kansas. And it is what we have heard in every discussion. I could give 50 examples, and eventually will, but here is one for now. A white man who grew up in this area, and works in construction, told us a few days ago: I wasn’t sure about the change in town. It’s different. But these people want to work. They want a better life for their children. We need them. Without them, we would shrivel up.

The details and the profiles and the specific extended quotes will follow. For today I just want to register: if you came to a part of America that had undergone some of the most profound recent ethnic change, and that was by inclination in no way trendily progressive, you would find Americans responding the way your best idea of America would suggest: inclusive, embracing, assessing newcomers on their character and behavior rather than on the categories to which they might be assigned (of course with the strains and tensions social change always brings).

This is worth noting at a time when it would be easy to assume that Americans in general were fearful, close-minded, and ready to reject those who were different in any way.

Production line at Mi Ranchito Tortilleria today, on the south side of Dodge City, Kansas. Mi Ranchito is a successful immigrant-owned startup, popular with customers of all ethnicities. (James Fallows)

I can barely express how strongly I wish that anyone writing or opining about American “nativism” or “resentment” could come to a place like this, and see real Americans of many backgrounds responding to real demographic change. We are better, still truer to ourselves, than some of our politics now suggests.

Driving into Dodge from the east side of town (James Fallows)

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For previous items on this theme, please see this thread.

The Multi-Dimensional Reality of the Nation, vs. the Flattened Reality of National Politics

Activity into and out of Dodge City, Kansas, yesterday afternoon, out the right side of the plane looking west as we neared a landing on runway 14 on a boiling hot day. (Deborah Fallows)

My wife Deb and I have started out on the road again—northern Texas recently, now western Kansas, with a diversion to Colorado and then far southern Texas once again. Reports on substance are in the pipeline. This is a brief but meant-to-be-emphatic report on tone.

If you live in the world of national politics and especially of the presidential race, you feel bad. If you’re a Republican, you feel bad because feeling bad is the campaign theme. Donald Trump last week: “We’re not going to have a country anymore.” If you’re a Democrat, you feel bad because of the possibility that a man like Trump might win. If you’re in the media, this is your world. If it’s your world, you feel bad — as I have both documented and exhibited in my “Trump Time Capsule” and “Trump Nation” threads.

All those things do matter. One lesson of American history is that the values, the personality, the associates, the experience, and other traits of a president have consequences. So five-plus months from now, when tens of millions of Americans go to the polls, their choices for president — and Congress, and governorships, and state legislatures — will have a big effect.

But another lesson of American history is that for the great majority of the citizens outside the media or professional-politicians’ world, elections really don’t command attention until the fall. And even then, they are part of life, not the thing itself. As I mentioned in my Atlantic story three months ago, even while Deb and I were visiting areas very heavily affected by immigration over these past few years, we never encountered talk about “building a wall,” or reference to other “burning” issues in national politics at all. Conceivably this was because people felt powerless to affect national events. But more often the reason seemed to be the gap between the practical-minded possibilities of local-level compromises and solutions rather than the ritualized, hostile, zero-sum standoff that is much of national-level politics and national-level political media as well.

I’m reminded of this because right now we’re in a place — Dodge City, Kansas — that is thriving by some measures, with an unemployment level of just over 3%, yet that has serious challenges like any other city’s plus those added by the budget contortions of Kansas as a whole. But the discussions we’ve had so far, which are just beginning, have again been about the practical and the positive: what has worked, what might work better, what are the resources the community might bring to bear, what is the long-term plan.

We barely talk this way at the national level any more. But in many component parts of the country, it’s the way people still behave. As Deb and I are reminded yet again.*

Scene in the window of what was once a school, then was a municipal building, and is now the home of the new “farm to bottle” Boot Hill Distillery on Boot Hill in Dodge City. (James Fallows)

* … which makes an uplifting way to observe our wedding anniversary!

America by Air: Whitewater

The twists of the White River, namesake of Whitewater, in Arkansas (James Fallows)

In one way or another, all Clinton-era “scandals” trace back to Whitewater. That was the late-1970s Arkansas real estate deal that prompted an investigative crusade by the NYT during Bill Clinton’s presidential run in 1992 and well into his first term. Congressional and special-prosecutor investigations followed. Whitewater was one of the matters Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster was dealing with at the time of his suicide. It was how special prosecutor Kenneth Starr first got onto the Clintons’ trail. The strongest case that it was all a misbegotten and cynical anti-Clinton effort was made by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason in their 2001 book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. I find their argument convincing; judge for yourself.

But if you were ever wondering, where did this all happen?, I am here to help. The scene above is of a serpentine portion of the White River in central Arkansas, namesake of Whitewater, as it appeared yesterday on a steamy June afternoon, looking southward out the left window from an altitude of 4,500 feet. This part of the river, in the vicinity of Searcy, is about 100 miles south of the hillier and more wooded area where the actual Whitewater development was located. Still: White(River)water!

***

Read On +

A Good Start: Bobby's Story

From A Good Start: Bobby’s Story.

One of my favorite features of our American Futures project is the occasional serendipity of crossing the path of some surprising, remarkable person. Like Jerrie Mock, the Columbus, Ohio, housewife who was the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964, in her Cessna 180. Or abolitionist and suffragist Eliza Tibbets, who started the navel orange industry in Riverside, California, from two small seedlings that she nurtured from her dishpan water. Or Joe Max Higgins, the tougher-than-nails sheriff’s son from Arkansas, who brought $5 billion of new heavy industry to the Golden Triangle of Northeast Mississippi.

Now there is Bobby Q. Narcho, a Tohono O’odham tribal member, who grew up on the reservation, colloquially called “the res,” in Sells, Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Bobby took naturally to taking pictures and making music and spent a lot of his youth doing that. In what he calls his “breakout project” at the Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a group dedicated to the sustainability of the health and culture of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Bobby caught the eye of his teacher, a professional photographer. He was able to earn a few paychecks through his talent, and invested it in an iPhone.

With that iPhone, still his only tool, Bobby started making videos for Facebook and Instagram. “Back in the day,” this 24-year-old says, straight-faced, he would share his 15-second videos on Instagram.

Bobby moved to Ajo, about 70 miles from Sells, to be near his cousin, Victor Garcia, who is also an artist. Now, Bobby has five different jobs and seems to be connected with almost everything going on in Ajo, which isn’t that hard in a town of only 2,300 folks. One connection, Lily Williams at the Desert Senita Health Center, who oversees Bobby’s work at the Edible Ajo Schoolyard project (EASY), encouraged Bobby to join a digital storytelling workshop sponsored by the Center’s Plan4Health grant. The theme was biking, a popular new focus in Ajo, and health. Before I tell you the rest of the story, please—please!—watch Bobby’s three-minute video:

A Good Start: Bobby's Story from Creative Narrations

Bobby’s idea was to make a one-shoot short film about his personal story of health and biking, and one that is grounded in his Tohono O’odham traditions.  The story of health, as he describes in the video, comes from the “signs of sickness in his people,” meaning diabetes, and from seeing signs of sickness in himself. (The 28,000 member Tohono O’odham tribe has the highest rate of adult-onset diabetes in the world: about 50 percent.)

Read On +

‘The Last Best Hope for Public STEM Education in Mississippi’

Campus of the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, where MSMS is housed (Deborah Fallows).

Over the years my wife Deb and I have frequently mentioned the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. You can read about some of its successes in posts collected here, and about its recent funding challenges here

A reader who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, where the school is based, and graduated from MSMS writes about why its survival matters:

I cannot pass up the opportunity to thank you for the coverage you have granted my little hometown, and particularly my alma mater, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science -- or as I like to describe it, the last, best hope for public STEM education in Mississippi.

The faculty, staff, alumni, and students know how desperately the services of such a center of educational excellence is needed statewide, but with the resources available, it's hard to even keep the core of the school operational. 

One comment with an eye to the future: I'm glad you find the "one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school's private fundraising" touching. However, one of my dreams is that someday the Foundation can move to a large-budget, literally industrial-scale donation model. Only with a larger budget can the true needs be met for the deserving students hailing from some of the most underperforming districts in the nation.

Students from MSMS two years ago, performing a historical re-enactment of segregation-era civic life in their town (James Fallows).

Despite the negative press frequently generated by the state government, I live in hope that such coverage as you provide accelerates the process of acquiring the attention of those with the means to make a difference. Under the day-to-day inanities, there is struggle and value and hope amongst the sleepy towns, like flowers struggling to grow through the cracks; and I hope they get their chance -- as I did.

Budget Challenges at a Remarkable Mississippi School

Students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science doing a historical re-enactment in the town cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi, in 2014. (James Fallows)

Over the past two years my wife Deb and I have reported frequently on the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in the eastern Mississippi town of Columbus. You can read two of Deb’s original posts here and here; one by me here;  and a collection of all reports from the region here.

MSMS, as it’s known, is a two-year, public, residential high school for talented students from across the state, based on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women, known as “the W.” The students are drawn from Mississippi’s full racial, economic, and geographic range.

As Deb said in an early report, “The 228 students at MSMS this year, all juniors and seniors, come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school studying accelerated sciences, math, and computer courses, as well as a rich selection of arts and humanities.” Nearly all of them go off to college. During last fall’s selection of Rhodes Scholars, Ericka Wheeler became the first-ever African-American woman to be chosen from Mississippi. She is an MSMS alum.

This week Bracey Harris of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson reported that MSMS has been steadily cutting its enrollment. The reason is not a lack of applicants — on the contrary — but rather cutbacks in funding from the state Department of Education. Sample:

The last time MSMS was near its full capacity of 275-300 students was five years ago.

Wade Leonard, a spokesman for MSMS, said enrollment has been scaled back by 12 percent from 271 students during the 2011-12 school year to 238 students for the 2016-17 school year.

If more funding is not received, the school’s class size is expected to drop to 220 by the 2017-18 year, an all-time low….

As a statewide special school, MSMS can’t draw on normal local school-tax revenues and depends on grants from the Department of Education and private donors. I found one other part of the Clarion-Ledger story impressive, and touching, in explaining the one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school’s private fund-raising:

Read On +

The Economic Logic of Preserving Wild Areas

Wild Sky Beef logo

A few weeks ago I mentioned a new collaboration between the filmmaker Ken Burns and the creators of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. They’re working together on a prize in Burns’s name, to recognize artists, historians, or other cultural and civic leaders who have advanced modern awareness of the American idea. “The American Idea” is the Atlantic’s favorite term for this concept, that being part of our magazine’s founding charter; the Prairie Reserve people use the term “American spirit,” but we’re talking about the same thing.

In that item and other reports on the APR, I’ve mentioned their non-traditional, market-minded approach to protecting plant and animal life and recreating, across millions of acres, something like the pre-Lewis & Clark plains bioscape. In response, reader W.B. sent in a lead to a Library of Economic Liberty podcast last fall, in which Peter Geddes of the APR talks with economist Russ Roberts about the economic logic of the undertaking. The podcast is an hour long, and a transcription accompanies it. I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in the long-term economics of sustainability. (Which was also the theme of my Al Gore piece last fall.)

Two samples. One, about the proper scale of the Reserve:

Roberts: Is it enough? I mean, it's big, but is it big enough?

Geddes: It is. What the conservation biologists have told us we need is a minimum size, and then all this of course is overlaid with what you can actually do practically. There are places in the country where conservation at this kind of scale is just frankly impossible. So, you've been out to the Bozeman area and know how popular and how fast-growing it is. The cost of getting the land is just too great.

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How the Local Food Movement Is Changing Rural Health

A small plot farmed by the Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ajo, Arizona (Deborah Fallows)

My wife Deb Fallows has a new post up to kick off the next season of our American Futures series, on a surprising implication of a quasi-familiar urban development.

That development is the “locavore” / local-food movement. If your first thought is Portlandia, Deb offers a second thought, which is the public-health, economic, and cultural importance of the movement in a remote desert community with very serious nutrition-related health problems.

That community is Ajo, Arizona, which we’ve written about before. The regional population includes large numbers of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos, plus members of the Tohono O’odham nation — groups with disproportionate rates of diabetes and related problems. As the story points out:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a report about Ajo, a grant recipient of its “Local Foods, Local Places” effort, describes in sobering terms: “The health of Ajo residents is a major concern for the community: high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity are present, and food insecurity—especially among children and the elderly—is prevalent.”

More details in Deb’s story, and more reports about to begin.

‘Already and Not Yet’: Is America Becoming Great Again?

From Clarion: A Journal of Spirituality and Justice

An ongoing theme in this space, most recently in discussion of citrus-flavored IPAs, is that America is “already becoming great again.”

Reader Monte Peterson, a seminarian in Ohio with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, writes to ask whether I am familiar with the theological resonances of this phrase. (Answer: No. I spent my youth hearing the cadences  of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence. But this particular phrase was not part of my mental or moral formation.)

Ms. Peterson writes:

“America already becoming great again.’ Are you familiar with the theological idea of ‘already and not yet’? [As above: No.]

Over and over, ‘articles in this series’ have reminded me of that idea--the “already but not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Now, this idea get interpreted in lots of ways, some troubling. But still, I find it a helpful description of the world as I understand it.

“The Kingdom” so often gets reduced to some cultural fantasy of heaven, with cherubs and clouds or “pie in the sky after we die”--when really it's something already here, among us, around us, in this life. And yet clearly it's not here yet--there is still so much pain and death and war and anxiety. So in the meantime, we wait with hope and we actively join in the work of bringing the kingdom to fruition--making the world a place where all God's children are fed, are cared for, are known.

We are called to become what we already are, as the Rev. Kevin Strickland recently said. The reports you have shared of small cities, businesses and schools that work well are part of this--and maybe even the citrus IPA's, of which I am a fan!

I realize this is more “God” talk than I've ever read in your columns, and could well be more than you're comfortable with. Nevertheless, I still think that theological ideas have something to contribute to our civic conversation, so I'm offering this up.

To which I say, Thanks, and I will reflect upon this.

Elizabeth Warren on the Second Gilded Age

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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Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm: Why Does This Ring a Bell?

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.

Read On +

Hmmm, Why Does This Sound Familiar? Cont'd

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.