James Fallows

James Fallows
James Fallows is a staff writer at 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 Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary. More +
  • Our Towns: State Programs Are Laboratories for the Nation

    A sea of green overlooking a forest
    The Garcia River Forest near Longvale, California Reuters

    My wife, Deb, has written about the concept of “Big Little Ideas.” These are modest-seeming, simple-and-practical steps that can have surprisingly large consequences.

    I am drawn to the parallel concept of “New Old Ideas.” These are themes from the American past that have new relevance for the United States of this moment and the years to come.

    Every nation has its leitmotifs: its tendencies and excesses and achievements, which run through its history. Probably because I know more—or at least have read more—about the history of the U.S. than of anyplace else, I’m more alert to these recurring themes than for other countries. (Of the many books in this vein, two that stick in my mind are Thinking in Time, by the late professors Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, and Special Providence, by Walter Russell Mead.)

    As the United States of the early 2020s considers its possibilities in the aftermath of the public health, economic, and civic tragedies of recent years, I think that the record of its most successful past renewal efforts deserves close attention.


    Because Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs went on for so long, and came in response to such a sustained and dire economic crisis, they are naturally and obviously a main source of parallel guidance. And the parallels are profound: What the Rural Electrification Administration meant to Americans of the 1930s, in bringing millions to the possibilities of electric lighting for the homes and electric refrigeration for their food, a nationwide effort to improve rural broadband access could mean today. What the Federal Writers’ Project did to shape Americans’ view of the contradictions and extent of their country, a new writers’ projectlike the one that Rep. Ted Lieu, of California, has proposed—might help achieve now. The architectural and infrastructure legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project is still a major part of America’s cityscape—in auditoriums and amphitheaters, libraries and post offices, archways and murals—more than 80 years later. During our travels, Deb wrote about the lasting imprint of New Deal programs, including the National Youth Administration, in a little town in coastal Maine. The creations and constructions of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the most celebrated of the New Deal programs, are also still part of the visible public landscape, and the invisible public infrastructure.

    As described at length here and here and elsewhere, these New Deal programs, and the breakthroughs of other reform-and-renewal eras in American history, were notable for their rapid-cycle, trial-and-error experimentation. Those experimental projects on the national level were, in their turn, often based on local or state-level innovations through the preceding years.

    That is why I think programs like California Volunteers deserve attention. (As described early in the pandemic lockdown, and again last fall.) Because of California’s quasi-national scale—with an economy larger than the U.K.’s or India’s, and as home to one eighth of all U.S. residents—projects there have unusual heft, whether they intend to or not. The people in charge of the Cal Volunteers project, and especially its new “Climate Action Corps” project, are in this case quite intentional about the example they hope their programs will set.

    “From the start, this [Climate Corps] effort was very much with the idea of being a real-time laboratory, for ideas that could be a model for the nation,” Josh Fryday told me this spring. Fryday, a former mayor of the small town of Novato, California, is the state’s “Chief Service Officer,” which has been made a cabinet-level position under governor Gavin Newsom.


    When I spoke with Fryday recently, he gave me many details of how the Climate Action Corps was launching sustainability and climate-mitigation efforts across the state. (For instance, this venture in my own home town of Redlands, in San Bernardino County, which is shown in the main photo above.) You can get many updated details, plus photos and sign-up information, at at their site. For the moment my attention is on the way Fryday described the rationale behind the program, and the longer-term, larger-scale effects he hoped it might have.

    He said there were three big-picture ways in which he thought the California experimentation might be a guide for the nation. To oversimplify then, and add my own commentary, they were:

    • Service, along with “policy”: “We’re applying the idea of service, and civic engagement, to tackle climate change,” Fryday told me. “Most people have focused on policy to leverage climate change. We are talking about people power–people power at scale. We’re trying to foster a culture of climate action here. That is an important change for how climate is approached at a policy level.”

      Obviously policies matter. In California’s case, the most famous example is the state’s insistence, from the 1960s onward, on fuel-efficiency and pollution-control standards for cars that were more rigorous than in the rest of the country. But Fryday is arguing that “muscle memory,” and civic habits and incentives, can be marshaled in the same direction.
        
    • Local flexibility and innovation: “First and foremost we are supporting local goals,” Fryday said. Although he didn’t put it this way, the idea paralleled the famous maxim, “Think globally, act locally.” In California’s case, this meant recognizing the ultimate goals—reducing emissions, improving resilience, increasing awareness—but adapting the tactics place-by-place and opportunity-by-opportunity.

      “Climate means different things in different communities,” he said. “We have built this program to be adaptive to rural communities, suburban communities, every community that wants to be part of it, and will be part of it. We’re bringing state resources, convening the resources of universities and businesses and civic society, to support and meet locally defined goals and opportunities.” All of this is fully in the “New Old Ideas” spirit of combining national/global support with the lessons of local adaptability.
        
    • Tools for connection, not division: “It is really important to us to create an opportunity where the power of service can unite people, to bring them together rather than divide them,” Fryday told me. This is of course a deliberate invocation of the CCC model, plus subsequent iterations, of the idea that service projects can bring people of different backgrounds together in unexpected ways.

      This unifying spect of service in America has a very long pedigree. It was part of William James’s renowned assessment of the aftereffects of the Civil War, the influence of broad military service in World War II and thereafter, and the Peace Corps and Americorps and Habitat for Humanity and many other illustrations. “We have a real chance to use this as an opportunity to bring people together across different backgrounds,” Fryday said. “But if we’re going to do that, we can’t just focus the program on a few people.” Toward that end the Climate Action Corps program has an elaborate tiered structure of service opportunities, which I won’t detail at the moment but may prove useful guidelines for other communities.

      (In summary: On the most-involved tier, people in California would sign up for a period of dedicated service, on the model of the old CCC, and in exchange for educational and other benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, they could learn from a list of “Ten Things You Can Do At Home” for climate improvement, from planting a tree to reducing food waste. More details later, as results of these real-time local-laboratory experiments come in.) “We want to have a pyramid of service,” Fryday said. “Whether you have an hour to give, or a year, we’d like to create an opportunity for you to be involved in climate action.”
    Sign saying "Welcome to Treestock"
    Picking up trees from “Treestock” this month at the University of Redlands (Carlos Puma)

    The core of the “New Old Idea” here is that local or state-wide innovation can be a model for projects elsewhere. Are there signs of national-level movement in similar directions? Here are a few:

    • In March in The New Yorker, Jim Lardner had a story titled “The Civilian Climate Corps is a Big Government Idea That All Americans Can Embrace.”
    • For NPR in May, Scott Detrow and Nathan Rott had a report on the Biden administration’s climate-corps plans.
    • For MSNBC also in May, Talia Levin wrote about the potential for revived versions of the Federal Writers’ Project and similar arts efforts.
    • A group of young state-and-local elected officials have informally organized in a group called NewDEAL, with the goal (among other things) of adapting past successful models to current challenges.

    There will be more, which deserve attention and support.

  • Does the U.S. Senate Resemble Ancient Rome?

    two towering pillars amidst a landscape of ruins
    The Roman Temple of Hercules at the Amman Citadel, an ancient Roman landmark Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

    Over the weekend, this space held the third installment in the “Lessons of Rome” chronicles by my friend Eric Schnurer. This one went into the comparison between the Roman Senate, in the era of Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy, and the current one in Washington.

    If you haven’t read it yet, please give it a try—among other reasons, for the speechwriter’s view of classic Latin rhetoric. This third piece also updated the “doomsday sundial”—a Roman Empire twist on the famous “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—and set its time to “a year before midnight.”

    Now, some reader reactions. First, from a reader with extensive experience in national government:

    Thank you for conveying the very thoughtful observations of Eric Schnurer comparing our situation to that of late republican Rome.

    One striking element is the complacency highlighted by Schnurer at the time of Cicero, and so evident now in the mistaken belief that “it” can’t happen here because we’re “exceptional.”  

    As political scientist David Faris observed in a recent interview on “Vox,” we could not be more wrong. Republicans are working to deprive the majority of its ability to control the agenda or to change the leadership. If they succeed, the result will be undramatic but definitive: “People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone.”

    For all their failures (which have become ever more obvious), the Founders did not have this outlook. They had a lively fear that “it” could indeed happen here, and they constructed the government they made to preclude that outcome.  

    Our misfortune is that, partly because of the deficiencies of that design (owing largely to several forced compromises) and partly because of later developments (such as the emergence of parties and of the filibuster), we face the reverse of one of their fears: a dictatorship not of the mob but of an entrenched minority. And we don't seem to be coping with that danger any better than did Ciceronian Rome. So we come to where Faris placed himself in his interview: “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024.”

    He did not quite despair, nor evidently does Schnurer. But the hour is indeed late, and time by our “atomic clock” is swiftly passing.


  • What Ancient Rome Tells Us About Today’s Senate

    Sundial with the sun behind it
    Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

    The U.S. Senate’s abdication of duty at the start of this Memorial Day weekend, when 11 senators (nine of them Republican) did not even show up to vote on authorizing an investigation of the January 6 insurrection, makes the item below particularly timely.

    Fifty-four senators (including six Republicans) voted to approve the investigative commission. Only 35 opposed it.

    But in the institutionalized rule-of-the-minority that is the contemporary Senate, the measure “failed.” The 54 who supported the measure represented states totaling more than 190 million people. The 35 who opposed represented fewer than 105 million. (How do I know this? You take the list of states by population; you match them to senators; you split the apportioned population when a state’s two senators voted in opposite ways; and you don’t count population for the 11 senators who didn’t show up.)

    The Senate was, of course, not designed to operate on a pure head-count basis. But this is a contemporary, permanent imbalance beyond what the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution would have countenanced.

    Why “contemporary”? Because the filibuster was not part of the constitutional balance-of-power scheme. As Adam Jentleson explains in his authoritative book Kill Switch, “real” filibusters, with senators orating for hours on end, rose to prominence as tools of 20th-century segregationists. Their 21st-century rebirth in the form of phony filibusters (where senators don’t even have to make a pretense of holding the floor) has been at the hands of Mitch McConnell, who made them routine as soon as the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006.

    The essay below, by a long-time analyst and practitioner of governance named Eric Schnurer, was written before the Senate’s failure on May 28, 2021. But it could have been presented as a breaking-news analysis of the event.

    Several days ago I wrote a setup for Schnurer’s essay, which I include in abbreviated form below. Then we come to his argument.


    Back in 2019, I did an article for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome. Like many good headlines, the one for this story intentionally overstated its argument. The headline was, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” Of course it was bad! But the piece reviewed scholarship about what happened in the former Roman provinces “after the fall,” and how it prepared the way for European progress long after the last rulers of the Western Empire had disappeared.

    Many people wrote in to agree and, naturally, to disagree. The online discussion begins here. One long response I quoted was from my friend Eric Schnurer. I had met him in the late 1970s when he was a college intern in the Carter-era White House speechwriting office, where I worked. Since then he has written extensively (including for The Atlantic) and consulted on governmental and political affairs.

    In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way.

    Now he is back, with a third and more cautionary extension of his argument. I think it’s very much worth reading, for its discourses on speechwriting in Latin, among other aspects. I’ve slightly condensed his message and used bold highlighting as a guide to his argument. But I turn the floor over to him. He starts with a precis of his case of two years ago:


    I contrasted Donald Trump’s America then—mid-2019—with the Rome of the Gracchus brothers, a pair of liberal social reformers who were both assassinated. Of course, the successive murders of two progressive brothers at the top rung of national power would seem to suggest the Kennedys more than, say, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren, to whom I compared them. But that’s to say that no historic parallels are perfect: One could just as fruitfully (or not) compare the present moment to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period we managed to make it through without ultimately descending into civil war.

    Yet, historical events can be instructive, predictive—even prescriptive—when not fully de-scriptive of current times and customs.

    What concerned me about the Roman comparison was, I noted at the time, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me.”

  • Dan Frank Was a Gifted and Generous Editor

    I don’t know how many people in the reading public would recognize the name Dan Frank. Millions of them should. He was a gifted editor, mentor, leader, and friend, who within the publishing world was renowned. His untimely death of cancer yesterday, at age 67, is a terrible loss especially for his family and colleagues, but also to a vast community of writers and to the reading public.

    Minute by minute, and page by page, writers gripe about editors. Year by year, and book by book, we become aware of how profoundly we rely on them. Over the decades I have had the good fortune of working with a series of this era’s most talented and supportive book editors. Some day I’ll write about the whole sequence, which led me 20 years ago to Dan Frank. For now, I want to say how much Dan Frank meant to public discourse in our times, and how much he will be missed.

    Dan Frank laughing in front of a bookshelf
    Dan Frank during a 2015 interview with Thomas Mallon at the Center for Fiction in New York

    Dan started working in publishing in his 20s, after college and graduate school. While in his 30s he became editorial director at Viking Books. Among the celebrated books he edited and published there was Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, which was a runaway bestseller and a critical success. It also represented the sort of literary nonfiction (and fiction) that Dan would aspire to: well-informed, elegantly written, presenting complex subjects accessibly, helping readers enter and understand realms they had not known about before. As it happened, Gleick worked with Dan on all of his subsequent books, including his biographies of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, as well as Faster and The Information.

    In 1991, after a shakeup at Pantheon, Dan Frank went there as an editor, and from 1996 onward he was Pantheon’s editorial director and leading force. As Reagan Arthur, the current head of the Knopf, Pantheon, and Schocken imprints at Penguin Random House, wrote yesterday in a note announcing Dan’s death:

    During his tenure, Dan established Pantheon as an industry-leading publisher of narrative science, world literature, contemporary fiction, and graphic novels. Authors published under Dan were awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, several National Book Awards, numerous NBCC awards, and multiple Eisners [for graphic novels] ….

    For decades, Dan has been the public face of Pantheon, setting the tone for the house and overseeing the list. He had an insatiable curiosity about life and, indeed, that curiosity informed many of his acquisitions. As important as the books he published and the authors he edited, Dan served as a mentor to younger colleagues, endlessly generous with his time and expertise. Famously soft-spoken, a “writer’s editor,” and in possession of a heartfelt laugh that would echo around the thirteenth floor, he was so identified with the imprint that some of his writers took to calling the place Dantheon.

    There are surprisingly few photos of Dan available online. I take that as an indication of his modesty; of the contrast between his high profile within the publishing world and his intentionally low profile outside it; and of his focus on the quiet, interior work of sitting down with manuscripts or talking with authors. The only YouTube segment I’ve found featuring him is this one from 2015, when Dan interviewed the author Thomas Mallon at the Center for Fiction in New York. (I am using this with the Center’s permission.)

    Dan is seated at the right, with his trademark round glasses. The clip will give an idea of his demeanor, his gentle but probing curiosity, his intelligence and encouragement, his readiness to smile and give a supportive laugh. Watching him talk with Mallon reminds me of his bearing when we would talk in his office at Pantheon or at a nearby restaurant.


    Everything that is frenzied and distracted in modern culture, Dan Frank was the opposite of. The surest way to get him to raise a skeptical eyebrow, when hearing a proposal for a new book, was to suggest some subject that was momentarily white-hot on the talk shows and breaking-news alerts. I know this firsthand. The book ideas he steered me away from, and kept me from wasting time on, represented guidance as crucial as what he offered on the four books I wrote for him, and the most recent one where he worked with me and my wife, Deb.

    Dan knew that books have a long gestation time—research and reporting, thinking, writing, editing, unveiling them to the world. They required hard work from a lot of people, starting with the author and editor but extending to a much larger team. Therefore it seemed only fair to him that anything demanding this much effort should be written as if it had a chance to last. Very few books endure; hardly any get proper notice; but Dan wanted books that deserved to be read a year after they came out, or a decade, or longer, if people were to come across them.

    The publisher’s long list of authors he worked with, which I’ll include at the bottom of this post, only begins to suggest his range. When I reached the final page of the new, gripping, epic-scale novel of modern China by Orville Schell, called My Old Home, it seemed inevitable that the author’s culminating word of thanks would be to his “wonderful, understated” editor, Dan Frank.

    What, exactly, does an editor like this do to win such gratitude? Some part of it is “line editing”—cutting or moving a sentence, changing a word, flagging an awkward transition. Dan excelled at that, but it wasn’t his main editing gift. Like all good editors, he understood that the first response back to a writer, on seeing new material, must always and invariably be: “This will be great!” or “I think we’ve really got something here.” Then, like all good editors, Dan continued with the combination of questions, expansions, reductions, and encouragements that get writers to produce the best-feasible version of the idea they had in mind. Their role is like that of a football coach, with the pre-game plan and the halftime speech: They’re not playing the game themselves, but they’re helping the athletes do their best. Or like that of a parent or teacher, helping a young person avoid foreseeable mistakes.

    You can read more about Dan Frank’s own views of the roles of author, editor, publisher, and agent, in this interview in 2009, from Riverrun Books. It even has a photo of him! And you can think about the books he fostered, edited, and helped create, if you consider this part of Reagan Arthur’s note:

    Dan worked with writers who were published by both Pantheon and Knopf. His authors include Charles Baxter, Madison Smartt Bell, Alain de Botton, David Eagleman, Gretel Ehrlich, Joseph J. Ellis, James Fallows, James Gleick, Jonathan Haidt, Richard Holmes, Susan Jacoby, Ben Katchor, Daniel Kehlmann, Jill Lepore, Alan Lightman, Tom Mallon, Joseph Mitchell,  Maria Popova, Oliver Sacks, Art Spiegelman, and many, many others.

    Deb and I will always be grateful to have known Dan Frank, and to have worked with him. We send our condolences to his wife, Patty, and their sons and family. The whole reading public has benefited, much more than most people know, from his life and work.

  • How FDR Changed Political Communication

    FDR at his desk for a fireside chat
    Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

    The renowned filmmaker Ken Burns has a new project called UNUM, about the sources of connection rather than separation in American life.

    His latest segment involves “Communication” in all its aspects, and it combines historical footage with current commentary. Some of the modern commenters are Yamiche Alcindor, Jane Mayer, Megan Twohey, Kara Swisher, and Will Sommer. You can see their clips here.

    One more of these segments covers the revolution in political communication wrought by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “fireside chats.” It was drawn from Burns’s earlier documentary Empire of the Air, which was narrated by Jason Robards. You can see a clip from that documentary here.

    As part of the UNUM series of contemporary response to historical footage, Burns’s team asked me to respond to the FDR segment. (Why me? In 1977—which was 44 years after FDR’s first fireside chat, and 44 years ago, as of now—the newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter gave his first fireside chat, which I helped write. It’s fascinating to watch, as a historical artifact; you can see the C-SPAN footage here.)

    This is what I thought about FDR’s language, and how it connects to the spirit of our moment in political time:

  • What the Bidens Understand About Community College

    Jill Biden speaks at the podium at Tidewell Community College with Joe Biden in the background
    Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    In the last week of April, Joe Biden gave his address to a joint session of Congress, which is of course what first-year presidents do, instead of an official “State of the Union” message. In the first week of May, both he and Jill Biden spoke at Tidewater Community College, in southern Virginia.

    The theme connecting their presentations is one of the stalwarts in reports over the years at this site: Namely, the role of community colleges as linchpins of education and opportunity in the United States. For more on why community colleges are the institutions of this American moment, please see this dispatch from Michigan, or this from Ohio, or this with responses from Maine to Texas to California and beyond, or this thoughtful reply by Matt Reed for Inside Higher Ed. For now, my goal is to explain why a 93-second video clip, which you’ll find at the end of this post, deserves your attention.


    In his joint-session speech, Joe Biden spoke on behalf of his large-scale “American Families Plan” and “American Jobs Plan,” which both followed the immediate stimulus plan he promoted, called the “American Rescue Plan.

    (Here’s a rhetorical note from a one-time political speechwriter: Simpler is always better, when it comes to naming big new projects. Cautionary example: During the Obama era, the U.S. and five other countries reached an agreement with Iran. Nearly everyone, admirer or critic, refers to that agreement as “the Iran nuclear deal”; almost no one outside a bureaucracy calls it by its ungainly formal title, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA. By contrast, the matched set of three titles for this administration's main programs—American Rescue Plan, American Jobs Plan, American Families Plan—are marvels of concision. Each name is three words long; two of the three words are “American” and “Plan”; and the remaining words are “Families,” “Jobs,” and “Rescue.” Unless they had chosen “Motherhood” and “Apple Pie,” it would be hard to improve on this as a naming strategy. Students of Americana will also note the resonance with the famous three-word titles of many of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, from the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, to the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA.)

    The idea and ambition of the new “American (Rescue/Jobs/Families) Plan” programs, as noted in this previous post, involve seizing this moment’s historic opportunity to address long-festering inequalities and failures. Will Americans look back, decades from now, at the sweep of these proposals as something comparable to the New Deal, in brightening prospects for the nation as a whole? Or will they see it as successful in more narrowly defined terms, like the race to space in the 1960s? Or will it be seen as another sad mismatch of intentions and effects? Obviously no one knows the answer now; less obviously but just as certainly, the answer is being determined week by week, through actions of citizens, businesses, and institutions across the country.


    "No matter where I go, I feel most at home at community colleges." Jill Biden, the first lady, at Tidewater Community College, in southern Virginia, on May 3, 2021. (White House video)

    Joe Biden’s part of the community college saga came last week, in the Capitol, when as part of his lengthy address he proposed guaranteeing two free years of community college to all students. At Tidewater Community College this week, Dr. Jill Biden appeared in her capacity as a long-time English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, outside Washington—where, she said, she was known as “Dr. B.” She spoke before her husband did, and she made the case for community colleges as today’s expressions of an American ideal: of mobility for individuals, of security for families, of revitalization for towns and regions.

    “Our schools accept everyone,” she said, “regardless of age or race or income, or family legacy.” If you watch her presentation (on C-SPAN video here), you’ll see her stressing these points, starting around time 3:00. “They offer classes that are flexible, so students don’t have to choose between work and school. They train for real-world jobs. They tailor to the community they serve.”

    Obviously community colleges have their failures and shortcomings and scandals, as any institution does. But both of the Bidens emphasized the theme that has struck Deb and me in our travels: how important the community-college opportunity is, for how many people, at a time when so many other avenues of opportunity have been closed off.

    America’s K-12 system is the bedrock of public education; its research universities, liberal arts colleges, and other four-year schools are crown jewels. But everyone already knows about the importance of those institutions—the public schools, the famous universities. Right now, in the political and economic straits of the 2020s, community colleges may most deserve extra attention and help.

    You can hear both Bidens making the extended case, in the C-SPAN video from Tidewater. But if you’d like the TL;DR version of this argument, I most enthusiastically recommend spending the next 93 seconds of your life watching Raj Shaunak, of East Mississippi Community College, explain what his institution has meant to the people of his state.

    Many of them, he says, are “one flat tire away from losing their job, or not finishing their education.” This is a clip from the HBO documentary “Our Towns,” and I think it will give you an idea of why we have become such proponents of strengthening these engines of American opportunity.

  • A Film ‘for the 80 Percent’

    A young boy in a blue shirt and glasses plays chess with a slightly older boy
    Project Fighting Chance, in San Bernardino, California, trains young people in boxing, chess, music, and more. It is one of the communities portrayed in "Our Towns." Courtesy of Steven Ascher / HBO

    Last night HBO aired its new documentary, Our Towns, which grew out of a long Atlantic series and later a book, as I described here yesterday. It has a number of upcoming screenings on HBO and is available for streaming on HBO Max.

    Coinciding with the film’s debut, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, interviewed the film’s creators—Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher of West City Films—and Deb Fallows and me about what it was like to turn print reporting into a movie, and how the resulting theme and message matched the realities of an America that has been coping with pandemic, division, and polarization.

    I think the results were very interesting. You can see them here:

    Near the end of the session, Jeff Goldberg made a point that rings true to me. He said that this was a film and message “for the 80 percent.” That is, for the substantial majority of Americans who believe in possibility, in practicality, in reasonable paths forward. I hope you’ll hear the interview—and watch the film.   

  • Why the Our Towns Documentary Is Timely

    A curly haired artist reads from a book, in front of a mural he painted.
    The artist Charly Hamilton stands before his mural in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, and reads a passage from Julius Caesar, in a closing scene from HBO’s new Our Towns film. Courtesy of Steven Ascher / HBO

    This evening—April 13, at 9 p.m. ET—HBO will air its new documentary Our Towns. The film will be available for streaming on HBO Max, and you can see a brief trailer for it here.

    Naturally my wife, Deb Fallows, and I have a special interest in this film. It is based on the book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, that Deb and I wrote, which was published three years ago. That book in turn grew out of a multiyear project of traveling around the country and reporting on smaller cities and rural areas, as part of The Atlantic’s “American Futures” series. We had many partners in this project and made many friends along the way, whose stories we told in the hundreds of online dispatches and several print-magazine stories we filed. We have stayed in touch with a large number of these people and communities, and we have continued to follow their successes, setbacks, and the lessons learned and taught since the time of our first visits.

    Deb and I spent much of 2019 on the road with our HBO colleagues—the filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher, of West City Films, and their team—doing the reporting, interviewing, and 100 days of on-location filming work that went into the movie. Then, during the long year of lockdown, Jeanne and Steve, with their partners at HBO, edited and crafted the film in a process that distilled the countless hours of footage into 97 exquisite minutes on screen. (HBO’s longtime leader, Richard Plepler, was the original champion of this project, and the heads of HBO’s documentary division, Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham, guided it from early stages through release.)

    Having presented our view of America strictly in words, Deb and I had no idea how these themes and impressions could be rendered mainly through images and scenes. As print-world people, we couldn’t have explained, or even imagined, what a film version of our journey might ideally look like. But once we saw the first edits we realized, it would look like this. The film exceeded our hopes and expectations for conveying the splendor (and also the scarring) of the American landscape; the passion, humor, and self-awareness (and sometimes self-delusion) of people wrestling with challenges for their communities and their country; and the achievements (and also disappointments) of an America that generally escapes the media’s attention.

    So we hope you will watch the film, because we believe it is beautiful, inspiring, surprising, and surprisingly timely. In the months to come, as the weather warms and public life resumes, we hope there will be occasions to show clips from it in viewing sessions around the country, in cities we visited and many more like them.

    But the other reason we hope you will watch the film is that we believe the message and spirit expressed in these 90-plus minutes on-screen are even more important in post-pandemic America than we could have foreseen when we began this work.

    In short: This film tells the story of America through examples of renewal and recovery that had been on display through decades of the country’s history, and which we captured just before the traumas of the pandemic era set in. As the country begins moving toward the “after” stage of this historic dislocation, those same traits will, we believe, be the keys to successful rebuilding and reconciliation in the years ahead.


    Cargo ship in beautiful waters of coastal Maine, at sunset.
    A cargo ship in the waters outside Eastport, Maine, from HBO’s new “Our Towns” film (Bryan Harvey / HBO)

    It is impossible to fully understand history as we are living through it. But everyone who has lived through, and in many cases been battered by, the turmoil of the past few years understands that these times—our times—will be studied and analyzed long after today’s Americans are gone, as one of the critical moments in the nation’s story.

    The United States has endured the worst public-health crisis in living Americans’ memory; its schools and businesses have reeled from the impact, not to mention its families; and its political system has been abused and tested in ways not seen in half a century or more. This has been a dark time around the world, and in certain ways darker for the United States than for many other countries.

    The question no one can answer in real time is whether this bad period will eventually be seen as a prelude to conditions that got even worse—or whether, as so many times before in the nation’s history, a time of crisis might shock the country in an era of long-overdue improvements and reforms. Will people a century from now look back on 2021 as a poignant last remnant of the “good old days”—a time before pandemics became even more frequent and uncontrollable, before economic opportunities and rewards became even more skewed, while democratic institutions still seemed repairable, while many of the Earth’s ecosystems might still be saved? Or will our times stand instead as shorthand for yet another of the country’s “bad old days” turning points, in which the country’s institutions and momentum hit bottom and then turned in a more hopeful direction?

    No one can know that answer. But nearly everyone can influence what the answer turns out to be.

    That is the fundamental idea behind the movie, and the book, and the ongoing efforts Deb and I hope to carry out: That we are all determining, today, what the country will look like tomorrow, and that most of us could use help in doing so. And—the additional idea—at a time when effective new ideas are at a premium, as is the very concept of optimistic possibility, many of the most promising new approaches are being hammered out not in national-level debates but state by state and city by city, town by town.

    The importance of flexible, local-level innovation, and the fertile creativity of American society at all its levels, is one of the most familiar themes in American history. It is part of what Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon in the 1800s. It was the basis of Louis Brandeis’s famous remark, in a 1932 Supreme Court dissent, that localities and states, in their diversity, were the real “laboratories of democracy” for a complex nation. It is a theme that has run through dozens of Deb’s and my reports.

    But we believe the concept of local-level experimentation is especially urgent now, because the climate is brightening for putting locally generated ideas into effect. Through several presidential administrations, for a generation or more, national-level politics in this United States has “failed” in its most important functional role. It has become mainly an arena for taking stands and thwarting opponents, rather than matching the still-enormous resources of this nation to its also-enormous problems. In recent times, the place where that matchup has been most likely to work has been not in federal government but at the local and sometimes statewide level. At their experimental and innovative best, local- and regional-level organizations have played a role (loosely) like monasteries in the Middle Ages, as reservoirs of a society’s possibility and learning.

    Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the national prospects are changing. This is the result of a partisan event—Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, and his party’s narrow control of Congress—but it is not fundamentally a partisan phenomenon. How so? The rapid expansion of the interstate highway network in the 1950s, and of public-school science and language instruction in that same era, resulted from a partisan event—Dwight Eisenhower’s ascent to the presidency—but was more a national than a partisan phenomenon. The expansion of the Land Grant University system from the 1860s onward arose from Republican-sponsored legislation but was a cornerstone of a progressive, nationally minded vision.

    In 2021, the resources that will soon be flowing to states, cities, and specific communities—for roads and bridges, for modern broadband connections and repairs on antique water pipes, for trains and airports, for health centers and food banks—result from one party’s support but soon will shape the whole nation’s prospects. And how they have that impact—whether we look back on this as a time of renewal, or sloppily missed opportunities—will turn largely on whether past lessons and discoveries of local innovation are successfully applied.

    On the last page of the Our Towns book, which we wrote a few months after the presidential election of 2016, Deb and I argued that a moment like the current one could be foreseen. From the 1880s through the 1920s, states and localities had tried out a variety of economic, political, and civic-reform efforts largely ignored at the national level. But “when the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various ‘laboratories of democracy’ were at hand.” And in our times:

    After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine.

    HBO’s new movie makes this point in a more emotionally powerful way. Its final scene is of the artist Charles Jupiter Hamilton, known as Charly, whose works include a wonderful history-of-our-community mural on a building wall on the west side of Charleston, West Virginia.

    When we came across Charly during our filming, he explained the background of the painting—as you’ll hear in the film. And then, unexpectedly, he pulled out a book of Shakespeare plays, and began reading a famous speech by Brutus, from Julius Caesar.

    The passage goes:

    There is a tide in the affairs of men.
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
    On such a full sea are we now afloat …

    “I always felt this way,” Charly told us, as he put down the book. “This is a place where the tide is in. If you put your boats out, put your ventures out, right now, we can make something of ourselves.”

    Coming where it does—in the film, in the drama of West Virginia, in the current history of the United States—the presentation has tremendous power. And it is our guiding principle. On such a full sea are we now afloat.

  • When a Company Invests in an ‘Underdog City’

    Early 1900s image of the old Toledo Post Office
    An early 1900s image of the old Toledo Post Office, slated to become a new tech center Courtesy of the City of Toledo

    The country is full of “underdog cities”—communities and regions that are aware of losing out and having been overlooked. Some are in Appalachia, some in the Deep South, some around the Great Lakes, some in inland regions of otherwise-prospering states in the West. The imbalances in American opportunity—by race, by gender, by neighborhood and region, by class and economics—are of fundamental importance in the politics of the past generation, and in the prospects for renewal in the generation ahead.

    Today’s installment is the story of how a company that started in one of these places is now involving people and businesses in another—and why that matters in the next stage of equitable American recovery.

    The company is Bitwise Industries; its site-of-origin is Fresno, in California’s agriculturally rich (but otherwise poor) Central Valley; and its latest project will be in the once-strong, recently troubled American manufacturing belt along the Great Lakes. This week, Bitwise announced a new $50 million venture to expand a model that has proven effect in California to other “underdog” parts of the country, starting with the city of Toledo, Ohio.

    The money has come from private investorsKapor Capital, JPMorgan Chase, Motley Fool Ventures, and the Toledo-based health-care non-profit ProMedica. Its announced goal, according to Bitwise, is “to support the actions needed to stop the widening wealth gap, end institutional discrimination, and remove the barriers for accessing high-wage, high-growth jobs.” In practice this means creating technology-training centers, incubators for startup businesses, partnerships with schools and universities, and in some cases physical renovations of run-down buildings.

    The funding is based on Bitwise’s track record of success in expanding opportunities for tech-related jobs in under-served communities in California. Its first project, in Toledo, will be opening a new training, incubator, coworking, and apprenticeship center in a historic downtown structure that for years has stood vacant and decaying.

    For Bitwise, this venture is an application of what its leaders call the “Digital New Deal”—opening more of this era’s opportunities to those who have lacked them. For Toledo it is, as the mayor, Wade Kapszukiewicz, put it to me, “a sign that the city is moving in the right direction,” and that people within the city “whose economic futures have been uncertain, they’ll have a chance to be on a better path.”

    As always, whether this will pay off is unknowable. But it is based on ideas and practices that in other parts of the country have so far proved their worth.

    Now, a word about the participants, their backgrounds, and the idea.


    Fresno and Bitwise: Fresno is the largest city in the Central Valley, whose farms, vineyards, groves, and orchards are acre-for-acre some of the most valuable farmland in the world. But despite the area’s phenomenal productivity, the people of the valley are on average very poor by national standards, and subject to the educational, social, and health handicaps that accompany poverty. By some calculations, if California ever carried out a scheme to divide itself into six states—which it won’t—the resulting new state of Central California would be the very poorest in the Union.

    Over the past six years, starting here and here and running through this last year, Deb Fallows and I have frequently reported on economic, civic, and cultural comeback activities in Fresno and the vicinity. One important economic and cultural driver there has been Bitwise. This was a startup firm when we first wrote about it, which has expanded into a combination of software house, tech-training center, and overall civic connector that has played a significant role in the city’s attempts at revival. (We’ve written about similar efforts from smaller tech companies in, for instance, Erie, Pennsylvania.) Deb and I have been impressed enough by their work that we’ve become paying customers of Bitwise on some web-design projects.

    The company’s cofounders, Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal, have been explicit in saying that their goal is to expand tech-economy opportunities for individuals, families, communities, and regions that the larger tech boom has left behind.   “Bitwise is a tech ecosystem, activating human potential to elevate underdog cities around the country,” the company says on its web site. “My grandmother came here from Mexico, and my grandfather grew up very poor,” Soberal told me, when I spoke with him and Olguin on the phone this week. Olguin herself grew up in a Central Valley field-working family. The opportunity to go to college, and to start a business in the tech industry, dramatically changed her prospects. She has spoken many times about the countless others who thirst for such opportunities, in the technology business that had traditionally been closed to people from backgrounds like hers.

    In 2019, Bitwise raised $27 million in “Series A” startup money, mainly to expand beyond Fresno to other “underdog” cities in California, like Bakersfield, Merced, and Oakland. With this $50 million in new “Series B” money, it intends to go national, toward other places with similar challenges—and potential. “The spread of COVID-19 and events of 2020 exposed the deep flaws that have existed for decades in the United States, and laid bare the unsustainable nature of our current systems/policies, and how they trap people in a cycle of poverty,” Olguin said in a statement announcing the new funding. “The past year showed us that there is no time to waste and we need to be aggressive about driving change now.”

    xx
    Plans for the renovated Jefferson Center building (Courtesy of the City of Toledo)

    “We were really rolling in California, and began asking ourselves, if we were to expand further, where would we go next?” Jake Soberal told me. “We wanted to see where we could have maximum impact.” The answer turned out to be Toledo.


    Toledo and ProMedica: What agriculture has been to Fresno’s economy, manufacturing has historically been to Toledo’s. This has especially been true for firms related to the auto industry in nearby Detroit, most notably in glass. Toledo’s nickname is “Glass City,” and it is still the headquarters of Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning, Libbey, and other major glass makers.

    But the city’s biggest employer is now a health-care organization—something that Deb and I found to be true in a strikingly large number of places. For Toledo, that organization is ProMedica, which operates hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices in the area, and senior-care centers in 26 states.

    ProMedica is organized as a non-profit, and describes itself as a “health and well-being organization” with a commitment to reviving its local community. Its CEO, Randy Oostra, told me this week that “when you look at health outcomes, it’s 20 percent clinical care, 40 percent social determinants” (and the rest is other things). That is, to foster healthy patients, you need healthy communities.

    “An emphasis on social determinants is in our DNA,” he said. “We see our mission as actively looking to improve people’s lives—which include people’s ability to learn, to get a job, to support healthy families.” He said that ProMedica also considered itself an “anchor institution” for the revival of Toledo as a whole. In 2017 it moved its headquarters to the downtown waterfront, where as part of a $60 million construction project it had renovated a huge old steam-power plant. In 2019 it contracted to buy from the city’s school board the huge, once-magnificent downtown structure that had been built in 1911 as the Main Post Office and, after a variety of incarnations, had fallen into disuse.

    At a virtual conference last summer, Robin Whitney, ProMedica’s chief of strategic planning, heard Irma Olguin talk about Bitwise’s record in Fresno and its desire to bring its model to other cities. As it happened, Olguin had a connection to the city. After finishing high school in the Central Valley, she had got her computer-science degree in the early 2000s at the University of Toledo. Whitney got in touch and said, what about Toledo?

    “They more we talked, the more we realized we were kindred spirits,” Robin Whitney told me. “The passion they had, the idea that you have to give more people a real opportunity, it was a match.”

    “My having an understanding of that area was helpful,” Olguin told me, when I asked: Why Toledo? “When I was first there, I was young and inexperienced and didn’t have the experience of starting a company under my belt. But the conversations we have now, and the absolute thirst to uplift the city, make a lot more sense. Too many people feel they have been left out, and need a chance.”

    “What people feel about Fresno, or Bakersfield, they feel about Toledo,” Jake Soberal said. “The underdog nature, the willingness to work together.” “Working together,” which sounds like a platitude, has been an important part of the Bitwise model: partnerships among city and state governments, universities, community groups and NGOs, and companies large and small, with a local focus. They felt that they found that level of connection in Toledo.

    “I know it’s a cliche to say ‘win-win,’ but I think that’s what this project is, for all involved,” Mayor Kapszukiewicz, a Democrat first elected in 2017, told me about the project. “Whether or not you buy into the notion that everything between the East Coast and the West Coast is ‘flyover country,’”—and by the way, I don’t—“in the economy there are winners and losers. In this region, we have done a lot of losing over the last 70 or 80 years.”

    In the long run, he said, cities along the Great Lakes might be enviously referred to as “the Water Belt”—rather than the Rust Belt or the Snow Belt—because “we are sitting on one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water.” With a warming climate, their location could become a strategic plus. But in recent memory, factories had still been closing, and populations falling.

    “There are communities and individuals our economy has overlooked,” he said. “People whose economic future is uncertain, they can be put on a path to better themselves and their families, with marketable skills that have real value.” As the mayor himself admitted, any sentiments of this sort sound platitudinous. But the problem he’s describing is very obviously real. And the elements of the response—businesses with an intentional civic focus, partnerships among a variety of groups, guiding focus on inclusion—have proven their value in communities with problems more acute than Toledo’s.

    “I don’t know what people on ‘the coasts’ might say about towns like Toledo,” the mayor remarked, when I told him I was calling from my house in Washington. “We’re not New York City, and we don’t want to be New York City. You can get anywhere you want, in 12 minutes. If you pay $200,000 for a house, you can get 3,000 square feet.”

    He stopped himself, and laughed—“Yes, this sounds like a mayor being a booster. But I think it’s the case for Toledo, and a lot of towns like this, that we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We get the sense that people might be snickering at us. And we make that an advantage, in the civic zeitgeist. It’s a nice town, we get along, and if someone ‘in the family’ gets picked on, everyone stands up for them.”

    The chip on the shoulder, very much the spirit of Fresno—or Erie, or Dayton, or San Bernardino, or many other places we have written about—is part of what the Bitwise founders recognized, and welcomed.  

    “Toledo has been knocked down and punched in the gut several time,” the mayor said. “But I will say that if there is anything about being knocked down, it’s that you know how to get up. Toledo is a resilient place. We know how to take a punch. Toledo is a place that never gives up.”

    Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, with a bridge behind him
    Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz (Courtesy of the City of Toledo)

    The Jefferson Center: “The property they’re using is an interesting representative of Toledo as a whole,” Nolan Rosenkrans, of the Toledo Blade, told me on the phone this week. He was talking about the vintage-1911 Main Post Office, recently known as the Jefferson Center, which will be the Bitwise/ProMedica site.

    “It’s right next to the Toledo Club, another stately historic structure, which is a center of wealth. And on the other side is a homeless shelter and community kitchen. In between is this huge block-long center that’s just empty now, and which is not the easiest kind of structure to redevelop.” He said that he thought most people would be glad the building would survive.

    As for the larger success of the project, people in Toledo and elsewhere will have to wait and see. But Bitwise intends this as the first of a series of projects for underdog cities in the Midwest and elsewhere. They will represent important new venues for the drama of whether the American economy can open more possibilities to more of its people.

  • Learning From the New Deal—For the Next Recovery

    A black-and-white photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt, sitting in a chair and looking at the camera
    Associated Press

    A few days ago, I was talking with the mayor of a medium-sized “red state” city about how his community was weathering today’s public-health and financial crises. I told him I was mainly curious about his observations, rather than looking for on-the-record quotes. We talked over some details about his town, and then I asked him about prospects for post-pandemic recovery, in the broadest sense: restoring lost jobs, reviving lost businesses, regaining economic momentum, recreating opportunities for people and communities that have been left out. How did the upcoming wave of national and global trends look, from his perspective a long distance from Washington?  

    “When I got into politics,” he said, referring to the late 1980s and early 1990s, “it was the era of Jack Kemp for the Republicans, and Bill Clinton for the Democrats. Balance the budget, lean government, and so on.” Twenty-five years ago, in his 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton had memorably declared, “The era of big government is over.”

    “All of those things were important, of course,” the mayor said. “But unless I’m misreading things, people now are really ready for a different approach.” That different approach, he said, would be more growth-minded, less constrained by fear of deficits. More Keynes and New Deal, less balanced-budget amendment.

    These are not radically novel views to express in early 2021. An excellent, long New York Times Magazine story by Noam Scheiber recently went into this shift, as do frequent reports in The Atlantic and practically every other publication. Personally I’m all in favor of the change, toward a Keynesian/New-New Deal mentality—but my point for the moment is that this mayor volunteered it as the coming trend.

    “I have a sense that we’re moving toward an environment where there’s broader support for public spending,” he said. “And that is exactly what cities need. In one word, infrastructure. Roads and bridges and sewers”—and, obviously, electric power systems. “They’re getting old, and they’re expensive to rebuild. My sense is not only that we need it, but that we’re in a political moment where it may be possible.”

    That is the drama we’ll be seeing play out on the national stage, as the new administration at the national level either can or cannot enact its new policies. And we’ll see the real test of effectiveness, adaptability, and innovation played out as the policies are implemented city by city, region by region, and state by state.

    That too would have resonance with the original New Deal, when the big, sweeping changes that were launched from Washington often drew from earlier experimentation at the local or state level—and took different effects as applied place-by-place. If national-level policy, in the Biden era, is now trying to support economic recovery and renewal of left-behind areas, ideas on how to do that, and the experimentations and implementations on getting it done, are largely going to occur at the local level. (In The Washington Monthly, Daniel Block has a new piece on how a federal renewal effort can best take advantage of the local ability to adapt and innovate.)

    As a prelude to more chronicles of this national-local and rural-urban interaction, here are a few leads to reports, ideas, and developments worth note.


  • How Michael Jones Changed Our Daily Lives

    Michael Jones leans against a stone wall, smiling slightly, with a mountain behind him
    Courtesy of June Jones

    Last week, at his home in Sunnyvale, California, a man named Michael T. Jones died of cancer, at age 60. This past weekend the local San Jose Mercury-News ran an appreciation of him and summary of his career, which you can read here. He is mourned by the many friends he made over the decades, of course most of all by his wife, June, with whom he recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.

    I considered Michael Jones a good friend, and someone with the too-rare combination of intellectual brilliance and temperamental big-heartedness. It was because of both factors—his virtuosity in the technological world, and his generosity on a personal level—that he was a leading figure in an Atlantic article I wrote ten years ago, called “Hacked.” The article described what happened after the email account and related electronic identities of my wife, Deb, were taken over by a hacker.

    Michael Jones
    Courtesy of June Jones

    Remember those phony emails you used to get, from what appeared to be a friend’s account? “I regret to inform you that I have been mugged in Manila. Please wire me $10,000 immediately, and include your banking details,” etc. Deb’s account was an early vector for such a scam—pulled off by a hacker, later traced to West Africa, whose first step was to permanently erase the entirety of her existing messages. Michael Jones was at the time the Chief Technology Advocate for the Google company as a whole—a job title invented specifically for him—and, as explained in the article, he helped me understand exactly how the hackers worked; how tech companies were trying to keep ahead of them; and how, eventually, many years’ worth of Deb’s correspondence could be retrieved.

    Also I learned: Always use two-factor sign-on systems!

    Deb and I had known Michael for several years at that point. I first met him at a tech-world conference where he and colleagues from a small company called Keyhole were describing a new digital-mapping product they had developed. In 2004, Google acquired that Keyhole company and its software, which in turn became the basis of Google Earth. I don’t know how many people around the world would recognize Michael Jones’s name or be aware of his story. But by most reckonings at least a billion people around the world, every day, use the company’s mapping tools—Google Earth, Google Maps, and related products—to get through traffic, to find out if a store is open, to see how their house looks from above. That last example is deliberate: When demonstrating Google Earth’s aerial view to me in the program’s early stages, Michael said that the first thing nearly all users did was enter their own address and zoom in on it.

    In 2013, I did a Q-and-A with Michael Jones in the magazine on how always-available mapping had already changed daily life, and what changes lay ahead. One of his answers illustrated his constant linking of technology and the humanities. (Although his formal education lasted only through one year at North Carolina State University, he was deeply informed about history and literature, and their connections with technology). He likened the rise of digital mapping tools to previous revolutions in systematized knowledge:

    I would consider this [digitized mapping] like Dr. Johnson’s compilation of a dictionary of the English language, or maybe the rise of the encyclopedia. It’s the creation of a universal reference work, reflecting a lot of labor and great expense, that everybody can rely on.

    If you think about Dr. Johnson’s dictionary from the point of view of English literature, you might say, “Well, Johnson—he did a dictionary.” But what else could you do with words on a piece of paper? Maybe you could write mysteries, or comedy, or adventure stories. You can do a lot of things with the words in his dictionary.

    We think there will be a new literature from the mapping dictionary that’s now being built.

    And another answer reflected what I can only call a boyish joy in discovery and learning, which lasted through his final days. I asked what had surprised him in the effects of mapping technology, and he said that one bad surprise was the touchiness of many governments about geographical-labeling issues. But:

    A better surprise has to do with the interest of people in geography.

    Geography was a class that few embraced in school. In elementary school, they make you color in maps to show where the oceans and continents are. And yet, when we were starting Keyhole, we read a report that one-fifth of American elementary-school students couldn’t point out the Pacific Ocean on a map.

    We thought, “This is wrong. We’re going to fix this problem. We’re going to make learning about the Earth fun, instead of boring …. ”

    We were saying … “We are going to make discovering the Earth a joy”—like you’re dating a planet and you want to know it, to hear all about its past and hopes. That’s what we did: we made something immersive and engaging and personal. You can fly to your home—fly to your parents’ home—and remember the time you snuck out in the backyard and did something you shouldn’t do, or the place where you had a first kiss, or the place you got married.

    What we didn’t expect was how many people would share that joy with us.

    Such was Michael’s polymath curiosity that he also discovered the truth about the unavoidable “boiled frog” cliché. It turns out, as Michael reported here, that a frog will indeed sit still in a pot of gradually heated water, just as the cliché holds. But it will do so only if its brain has already been removed. A normal, sentient frog will hop out as soon as things get too warm. It occurred to a German scientist to demonstrate this experimentally in the late 1800s.

    Last summer, the Royal Geographical Society in London awarded Michael Jones its highest honor, its Patron’s Medal, as I noted at the time. He did a revealing interview with the RGS, about the meanings of maps, of geography, and of the inventor’s temperament. In an outtake version of that interview, which June Jones shared with me, Michael said this:

    Everyone is an inventor; you need only ignore limits and preconceptions then ask yourself “how should it be?” Inventors are just laborers toiling to make things be as we feel they should.

    For me, a key trait is passion for ideas, loving them as parents love children and grandchildren: embracing them, sacrificing for them, excusing the worst and believing the best of them, being patient and supportive with an enduring love as they mature. Like children, they take time to develop into the brightness of their promise.

    I have been this way all my life.

    I miss Michael Jones and am glad to have known him. Those who never met or knew of him should pause in appreciation of what he and others like him have done.

  • JONATHAN ERNST / AP

    Why Biden’s Inaugural Address Succeeded

    In 20 minutes, the president signaled how he will approach this job and this moment in history.

  • Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

    Time for Consequences

    President-elect Joe Biden must look forward—but the rest of us must contend with the past.

  • What Post-pandemic Repair Could Look Like

    A woman wearing a mask stands in front of a store going out of business, with "STORE IS CLOSING" written on the window and 80% off signs
    Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

    The pandemic ravaged America’s big cities first, and now its countryside. The public-health and economic repercussions have been felt everywhere. But they have been hardest on the smallest businesses, and the most vulnerable families and communities.

    This is an update, following a report last month, on plans to repair the damage now being done.

    1) What the federal government can do: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a group concentrating on the business-structure, technological, political, and other obstacles that have held small cities and rural areas back—and how they might be reversed.

    This month the ILSR released a report on steps the federal government could take to foster business and civic renewal at the local level. The report is available in PDF here, and a summary is here. The larger argument is designed to:

    … help the federal government avoid the mistakes made in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis …

    Rather than the housing sector [as in the previous crisis], the current economic fallout is decimating America’s small businesses. Nearly 100,000 small, independent businesses have already closed their doors permanently, with Black-owned businesses taking the biggest hit. As of early November, small business revenue was down a stunning 31 percent from January. As small businesses close or hang on by their fingernails, meanwhile, a handful of big corporations are recording massive profits, increasing their already-dominant market share, and dramatically accelerating concentration of the economy….

    People are losing their dreams and livelihoods. Neighborhoods are losing beloved local stores and gathering spots. The country is losing much of its local productive capacity. To answer this generational challenge, we must have a federal economic recovery strategy focused on rebuilding, creating, and growing America’s small, independent businesses.

    The report covers large policy areas—a different approach to antitrust—and very tangible specifics, like the way credit-card processing fees are handled. It is certainly worth consideration by the Biden team. (And, in the same vein, here is another worthwhile piece, by Maddie Oatman in Mother Jones, on the importance of economic prospects for rural America.)

    2) What some state governments can do (a California model): Responding to a crisis that is both global and intensely local naturally involves a combination of measures—international efforts to detect and contain disease, nationwide economic strategies, and city-by-city and state-by-state responses to the problems and opportunities of each locale.

    California, which has roughly one-eighth of the whole population of the United States and produces roughly one-seventh of U.S. economic output, also has been responsible for an outsize proportion of innovations. Some of them have run afoul or amok, as Mark Paul and Joe Mathews described a decade ago in their book The California Crackup (and as I mentioned in this 2013 profile of Jerry Brown). Others are a positive model for other states and the nation as a whole—notably, a non-partisan, anti-gerrymandering approach to drawing political-district lines. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was governor when this reform came in, has been taking the anti-gerrymandering cause nationwide, as Edward-Isaac Dovere reported here.

    One of California’s innovations that deserves broader attention is its “Little Hoover Commission.” After World War II, current president Harry Truman appointed former president Herbert Hoover to head a commission looking into broad questions of government organization and efficiency. That was the “big” Hoover Commission.

    California’s “Little Hoover Commission” counterpart was created in 1962 and was meant to be a permanent, independent, non-partisan source of oversight and expertise about the state’s long-term challenges, and the state government’s response to them. In my new print-magazine article, I argue that, on the national level, formal commissions have played a surprisingly important role in investigating calamities (the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the 9/11 attacks) or assessing crises and trends (educational failures, resegregation and racial justice). California has, in effect, institutionalized this kind of non-partisan inquiry.

    This month, the Little Hoover Commission has released its report on how badly the pandemic-era economic implosion is hurting businesses and families in California, and what might be done about it. The executive summary is here, and the full report is here.

    I won’t attempt to summarize the whole thing here, but in essence their recommendation is an emergency effort to link public and private resources of all sorts—individual donors, NGOs, corporations, financial institutions—in a “rebuilding fund.” The fund, in turn, would concentrate on small businesses, and especially those in disadvantaged communities. One of its recommendations:

    The state needs to use its megaphone to make financial institutions, private investors, and philanthropic donors aware of the Rebuilding Fund and to encourage high-net-worth individuals, impact investors, and major corporations to lend and/or donate to the Rebuilding Fund.

    This may include working with regional business councils to disseminate information about the Rebuilding Fund and explain why it is vital to support small businesses, especially those in underserved communities. It may also include fully leveraging existing state investment networks..

    In order to encourage investment, GO-Biz and IBank should also develop a strategy for publicly recognizing institutional investors and explore additional means for incentivizing participation.

    In parallel with this effort, two California-based business-and-economic authorities, Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca, have put out a paper on the urgency of a new federal stimulus program. (For the record, both of them are friends of mine.) They say:

    It is incumbent on the federal government to provide more generous and flexible funding for state and local governments. Governors and mayors across the country are pleading for help ahead of a challenging winter. Most states and cities have exhausted rainy-day funds and are facing a collective shortfall of $400 billion or more, according to the most recent estimates.

    Because most state and local governments cannot legally spend more than they receive in revenues, they need federal funds to cover their growing fiscal gaps. Without such support, they will have no choice but to raise taxes or cut essential services and employment in health, public safety, and education, as many are already doing. Either option will undermine the countercyclical effects of federal stimulus, thereby weakening the recovery.

    At the fiat of Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate seems likely to end this year without addressing the states’ and cities’ needs. Many states and cities are improvising in useful ways, but national crises require a national response. Help!

    (And while I am at it, here is another locally based initiative to create more supportive ecosystems for entrepreneurs.)

    3) Ways around the college-degree bottleneck: Research universities and four-year colleges are simultaneously the glory and the heartbreak of America’s educational system. They’re the glory for obvious reasons. They’re the heartbreak because of the financial challenges for many liberal-arts schools, and the student-debt burdens for millions of young people, and the factors that can make higher education reinforce existing privileges, rather than offset them.

    The negative power of judging people purely by sheepskin credentials is very familiar. (I actually did an Atlantic cover story about it 35 years ago, here.) But a positive counterpart in the past few years has been rapidly opening pathways to careers that don’t require a four-year degree. That’s what we’ve emphasized in our reports on community colleges, “career technical” programs in high schools, apprenticeship systems, and other ways of matching people with the opportunities of this moment.

    Last week The New York Times had a story by Steve Lohr with the headline, “Up to 30 Million in U.S. Have the Skills to Earn 70% More, Researchers Say.”

    This is a great headline that conveys the essential point: There are opportunities (post-pandemic) for people who for various reasons have not completed the four-year bachelor’s gantlet. More information is available at Opportunity@Work and through the Rework America Alliance. (For the record, I know many of the people involved in the Opportunity and Reword initiatives.)

    As with previous dispatches, none of these approaches is “the” answer to this era’s many crises. But they’re all potential parts of an answer. They deserve attention.   

  • Illustration by Katie Martin; photographs by Tom Brenner …

    How Biden Should Investigate Trump

    The misdeeds and destructive acts are legion. The new president should focus on these three.

  • How to Reconnect Rural and Urban America

    An abandoned-looking steel mill on a sunny day
    A steel mill in Mingo Junction, Ohio, shut down in 2008. Mingo Junction is part of the Ohio River Valley, often stereotyped in national discourse as the land of coal mines and closed factories. ERIC THAYER

    As it was in 2016, so it is again in 2020: A central axis of national-election results is the rural-urban gulf. Larger cities—really, conurbations of any sort—mainly went for Joe Biden. Donald Trump’s major strength was in the smallest cities and in rural areas.

    Obviously there has been more to Donald Trump’s power than purely regional dynamics. (In particular, there are racial dynamics, as laid out here and here and here.) And as Deb Fallows and I have argued for years, the United States looks more hopelessly divided when it comes to national elections than it does from any other perspective. For instance, see these dispatches from western Kansas, back in 2016.

    But also obviously, national elections matter, and regional and locational polarization makes every other challenge for America more difficult. In a new paper for Brookings, John Austin argues that Midwestern voting patterns for Trump and Biden show how the sense of being “left behind” fuels resentment-driven politics—and how a sense of possibility can have the opposite effect. August Benzow of The Economic Innovation Group has a related paper on the stark differences within rural America on racial diversity, economic positioning, and political outlook.

    Does anyone have an idea of how to blunt these differences and open more opportunities? Especially as a new administration faces all the economic, public health, law-enforcement, and other crises the new Biden team is about to take on? Here are some recent items worth noticing:

    1) A Marshall Plan for Middle America: During election years, reporters troop into cities (and especially diners) in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other parts of “interior America” to get political quotes. Then, typically, the press spotlight moves someplace else.

    This past weekend in The Washington Post, the mayors of eight of these middle-American cities wrote about what could be done to move their areas ahead. These are places we know and have written about, many of whose mayors we also know personally. The cities are Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Youngstown in Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and Huntington and Morgantown, West Virginia. All are in the Appalachian or Ohio River Valley regions, often stereotyped in national discourse as the land of coal mines and decrepit factories.

    The mayors argue that it is time to draw on the region’s manufacturing heritage, and recreate its economy in a fundamental way. For instance:

    According to our research, taking advantage of our community assets, geographic positioning and the strengths of our regional markets can help create over 400,000 jobs across the region by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades to buildings, energy infrastructure and transportation assets.

    Renewable sources of power are proving less expensive, and fossil fuel companies are increasingly dependent on federal subsidies to survive. Couldn’t these subsidies be strategically shifted to invest in a green economy that keeps these largely suburban and rural jobs but transitions them, with federal support, into new industries that will grow in the 21st century?

    Like our friends at Reimagine Appalachia—a grass-roots community and environmental organization—we believe a Marshall Plan-scale reinvestment is necessary. Rather than a “Green New Deal,” our plan would seed long-term regional investments in Appalachia’s rural and suburban communities, while leveraging the technological successes of our tentpole cities to assist them. The same goes for our neighbors in the Ohio River Valley throughout the Rust Belt and up to the Great Lakes region.

    I agree with their pitch, and hope their prospectus gets attention. Here is a complementary argument from Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, and another from Annie Regan, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    2) Reducing Polarization by Modernizing Rural Policy: The political and cultural ramifications of a rural-urban divide are hot topics journalistically. “Rural policy,” not so much. But in a new report for Brookings (available here), Anthony Pipa and Nathalie Geismar argue that straightening out the rat’s-nest of programs intended to help rural America could make a big difference.

    Rat’s nest? Take a look at this organization chart included in the Brookings report:

    Courtesy of the Brookings Institution

    “The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further disrupt local economies that in 2019 were still recovering from the Great Recession” and other long-term disruptions, Pipa and Geismar write. They add:

    Just recently, COVID-19 prevalence in nonmetro U.S. areas surpassed those in metro areas for the first time; Rural residents are now almost 2.5 times more likely than urban residents to die from the virus. This is compounded by the decreasing access to health care that many rural communities face …

    Now, rural communities must navigate a virtual world of work with intermittent broadband access and adapt to additional shocks to manufacturing and agriculture supply chains ….

    Despite these challenges, rural communities are diverse—both demographically and economically—and entrepreneurial. They help power, feed, and protect America at rates disproportionate to other geographies. They house 99 percent of wind power capacity and will play a key role in national climate strategies that require investments in clean energy infrastructure.

    The report has many recommendations, but here are the three main ones:

    1. Launch a new development corporation, to invest in local vision and leadership through long-term block grants at the community level and innovative financing tools that give communities a fighting chance to strengthen and renew their local institutions, economies, and vision.
    2. Create a national rural strategy, elevate White House and interagency leadership, and undertake a set of specific and targeted reforms to enhance federal coherence and effectiveness.
    3. Appoint a bipartisan congressional commission to undertake a top-to-bottom review regarding the effectiveness of federal assistance and build political momentum to transform federal rural policy.    

    3) Local journalism and local recovery: This is a big ongoing theme, which will only gain in importance if recovery efforts like those mentioned above are giving a serious try in communities across the country. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, a former editor herself and an indispensable media observer, published a book this year about the accelerating forces working against local news. Just after this year’s election, Dan Kennedy, another important longtime media writer, argued on the GBH news site that shoring up local journalism would have direct benefits community-by-community, plus the broader potential of calming down now-fevered national discussions. On the Poynter site, Rick Edmonds—yet another important longtime media writer—gives a comprehensive overview of how “shoring up” might actually work. For instance:

    As the pandemic advertising recession and longstanding negative trends have made the financial precariousness of these enterprises obvious, Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news. The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.

    My take comes from conversations with a variety of advocacy groups pushing one form or another of legislative assistance. A surprising favorite approach has emerged, too—direct subsidies for news subscribers, local journalists and small business advertisers.

    That’s the structure of HR 7640, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and more than 70 co-sponsors from both parties.

    There is a lot more detail in Edmonds’s piece, and the others. (See also this pre-election analysis at the Ground Truth Project, by Steven Waldman, whose work I have described here.) And while I’m at it, please check out the latest dispatch from John Miller, creator of the film Moundsville, about regional culture gaps. Also this, by Katherine Bindley in The Wall Street Journal, about big-city tech-industry people who have considered entirely different careers, in entirely different parts of the country, because of the pandemic.

    Important transformation work is underway at the national level, as I’ll discuss in an upcoming print-magazine article. But that would be doomed, or at least limited, without comparably intense efforts to improve local-level prospects. These ideas are a start.

  • Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

    Trump’s Indifference Amounts to Negligent Homicide

    The president’s behavior may not meet the term’s legal definition, but it captures the horror a government is visiting upon its people.

  • What Happens After the Election

    Downtown Akron, from the city's North Hill neighborhood, over the Little Cuyahoga River Valley. Akron is one of countless cities whose recovery plans have been upended by the pandemic.
    Downtown Akron, from the city's North Hill neighborhood, over the Little Cuyahoga River Valley. Akron is one of countless cities whose recovery plans have been upended by the pandemic. Courtesy of Jason Segedy

    What else is going on in the country, with less than two weeks in this consequential election season? Here is a sampling of recent articles and developments worth notice.

    Prospects for local journalism: The strength and importance of local journalism have always grown from its attention to the local: What is happening in the town or region, what is getting better or worse, how local institutions are responding. Even as national politics have become more polarized and tribal, local news organizations have often been able to focus attention and engagement on important issues (rather than divisive spectacles) that can be solved (rather than just argued about).

    This is why several trends of recent years have been so destructive in civic terms. These include the economic pressures on small, independent news outlets; the gobbling up of many surviving outlets by private-equity chains; and the determination of national TV chains like Sinclair to convert local TV-news outlets into extensions of the national-politics crusades. A recent story by Davey Alba and Jack Nicas in The New York Times has drawn a lot of attention for showing how the Sinclair model—franchised, faux-“local” versions of national messaging—is spreading to the print and online realms.

    Some recent developments worth noting, on the other side:

    • From Poynter, an essay by Steven Waldman on why these new pressures on local journalism matter, and what could be done about them. Waldman, a longtime friend, is among other things a co-founder of Report for America, which I have written about, and of the Rebuild Local News coalition. In his Poynter essay he points out the goods and bads of this moment in local news:

      As a point of reference, consider this: One of the most positive trends has been the rise of local nonprofit news organizations. Today, there are about 300 of them, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Yes, that’s less than one quarter of the number of these faux news sites that have popped up recently.

      The problem is increasingly not that communities will get no information but that they’ll get disinformation, or information whose provenance is unknown.

    • From David Plotz, long of Slate and Atlas Obscura, the announcement of a new locally oriented podcast series, called City Cast. In a post on Medium describing the project, Plotz writes:

    I’m starting City Cast because I believe the future is local ….

    Thanks to the pandemic, a staggering economic crisis, the protest movement against police violence and systemic racism, and well, just 2020 in general, America has never needed great local journalism more than it does today ….

    Where local news is sparse or feeble, communities suffer: Political activity declines; local businesses weaken; mistrust grows. We become more divided, more insular, and more hopeless. If you live in a community with hollowed-out media, you feel that every day.

    Good luck to Plotz and his City Cast colleagues.

    • For another illustration of an innovative local model, check out Canopy Atlanta, and its inaugural issue on the city’s West End—and this report by Rick Edmonds, of Poynter, about the way three regional papers are trying to expand rather than budget-cut their way to survival.

    • And, for an economic-development perspective on which accurate local news matters, see a recent installment of The Chung Report, by James Chung, which has had an ongoing focus on development in Chung’s original hometown of Wichita, Kansas. In “Why Transparency Matters,” Chung explores how a medium-sized city like Wichita, with a strong university presence (Wichita State) and a historic role as a center of aerospace technology, can deal with its long-term civic and economic challenges.

    Economic recovery after the pandemic: The story of the moment is of accelerating economic and public-health damage from the (disastrously managed) pandemic. The next story will be about the ways families, companies, cities, and regions can begin to recover.

    Some of this effort will be national and global in scale. Some will be intensely local. Here are several worthwhile guides:

    • From the Heartland Forward project, a report on an economic recovery strategy for Northwest Arkansas. Why this part of the country? Heartland Forward’s founders include younger members of the Walton family and, along with the Walton Family Foundation, it has concentrated on economic and civic revival in non-coastal America, notably including the Walmart headquarters area of Northwest Arkansas.

    This new report (in PDF here) is largely devoted to both the immediate and the longer-term effects of the pandemic. It also addresses the region’s diversity and racial-justice issues. Historically, this part of the state (which was not part of the antebellum plantation economy) has had a large-majority white population; according to the report, only 2.5 percent of the local population is Black. The report flatly says that to progress, the region must intentionally make itself more welcoming and inclusive:

    “It is paramount that the region’s major employers continue to attract and retain diverse talent … In addition, building up diverse populations assists new members to the community feel comfortable and secure, as well as helps to make the existing culture more welcoming to outsiders …. NWA [Northwest Arkansas] should consider ways to make diverse populations feel more welcome in the community …”

    Even if you’re not interested in this part of the country, the report is worth noticing as an illustration of how regions with distinctive strengths and limitations can think realistically about their possibilities.

    • From Jason Segedy, planning director for the city of Akron, two valuable essays on how cities can approach these new rebuilding challenges. One, in The American Conservative, is about how cities can become more “inclusive” even in the face of likely long-term decline. The other, for the Economic Innovation Group, is about how “legacy cities,” of smaller size and yesteryear’s industry, can find a future. He uses the example of another city we’ve written about, Dayton:

      There is also a certain level of love for a mid-sized city like Dayton that is often not as present in larger places, where many people might be there for less emotional and more utilitarian economic reasons. This can lead to higher levels of civic engagement and community support. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and the civically-engaged and community-minded can potentially have more of a positive impact, being bigger fish in a smaller pond. “When you really love something, you want to make it better,” says Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy advisor to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.  

      At the same time, the way that the economy has changed over the past four decades has made it far more difficult for these cities to succeed. Consolidation of major industrial corporations has really hurt cities like Akron and Dayton, as these cities first lost thousands of blue-collar production jobs and then ultimately lost most of the white-collar professional jobs that remained.     

    • From Allentown, Pennsylvania, an update on the ongoing redevelopment of the city’s old heavy-manufacturing sites. Several years ago John Tierney wrote about small, modern startups in what was once the Mack Truck plant. (It is now known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.) The next industrial site for renovation is a former steel fabrication plant, known as the Metal Works. You can read about its situation here.

    • From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a report on how much money state and local governments have already devoted to sustaining small businesses through the pandemic era—but how much more federal help will inevitably be needed. The report (PDF here), by Kennedy Smith, says:

      “The relief programs provided by local and state governments have kept hundreds of thousands of small businesses afloat so far and helped them adapt to the surreal commercial environment the pandemic has created. But absent additional and ongoing funding these crucial programs will cease, leaving hundreds of thousands of small businesses at risk of going under in the coming months.”

    Small businesses across the country have been through very tough times these past six-plus months. But—as in so many other aspects of pandemic effects—without help, even tougher times may lie ahead. For a previous ILSR report on steps cities can take to sustain their independent businesses, see this.  

    • One of our ongoing threads through the years has been the importance of skilled-trades jobs, as sources of opportunity and offsets to an ever-more-polarized economy. Advanced-manufacturing jobs, work designing and maintaining robotic systems, jobs in aerospace and health care and advanced agriculture—almost all of these have had more job openings than applicants in recent years, and many do not require a four-year college diploma. NPR has a new segment on this trend, and the importance of apprenticeships. You can read its report by Adedayo Akala and listen to the broadcast here.

    Cityscape: I very much enjoyed this map of fall foliage in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where we have spent a lot of time. Check it out. Sample shot below.

    Courtesy of the City of Sioux Falls

  • Robyn Beck / Getty / The Atlantic

    Where Harris Succeeded and Pence Failed

    Both candidates needed to convince voters they possess the right temperament for the job. Only one pulled it off.

  • Olivier Douliery / AFP / Getty

    A Disgusting Night for Democracy

    Donald Trump made it so, and Chris Wallace let him.