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 +
  • How a Small Brewery Can Survive COVID-19

    Staff of the Almanac Beer Company, in Alameda, California—which, despite pandemic restrictions, is improbably having its best sales ever.
    Staff of the Almanac Beer Company, in Alameda, California—which, despite pandemic restrictions, is improbably having its best sales ever. Courtesy of Almanac Beer Company

    Here is one more item about a bellwether business category that until recently had been an indicator of downtown renewal and locally focused entrepreneurship—and which now is figuring out how and whether it can survive.

    I am talking about the small, independent, start-up breweries and distilleries whose numbers have increased by the thousands in the past decade—but many of whose members are now just trying to hang on.

    In previous installments, I reported on businesspeople from Massachusetts to Minnesota to Southern California who were trying to adapt to pandemic-era realities. Among their themes:

    • The newest companies are the most vulnerable. Those that survive are usually drawing on at least a few years of market awareness, built-up savings, and civic support to get through these bleak times.
    • Adaptability is everything. Start canning and selling beer you previously dispensed via taps. Move operations outdoors. Make hand sanitizer (although even that market has drastically changed.) Do whatever it takes.
    • Embrace the “shift to quality.” As people are spending less time and money in bars and restaurants, some of them are “buying up” to higher-level food and drink to have at home.
    • Recognize long-standing sources of friction. Antiquated distributorship laws, described here and here, had for years been a nuisance for small businesses. With the pandemic, they became a life-or-death threat. Shortages and soaring prices of aluminum cans, labels, and canning machinery suddenly were crucial to whether small businesses could last this collapse.

    Now, two more brief reports, from different kinds of small businesses in different parts of the country. One is a small, relatively young taproom-based operation in Pensacola, Florida. The other is a longer-established independent brewery with wide distribution in California. Each underscores some of the previous principles and illustrates new ones.


    Perfect Plain in Pensacola, Florida: Almost three years ago, the Perfect Plain brewing company opened in a still-reviving part of downtown Pensacola, the westernmost city on the Florida panhandle. The name came from a locally famous description that Rachel Jackson had given the region in 1821, when her husband, Andrew, was the incoming governor of Florida. “Pensacola is a perfect plain,” she wrote to a friend. “The town is immediately on the bay, the most beautiful water prospect I ever saw … There is something in it so exhilarating, so pure, so wholesome, it enlivens the whole system.”

    The city has long had an economic bulwark in the nearby Naval Air Station, and of course its beach and resort areas, as well as a deliberately nurtured and increasingly popular arts-and-events scene. Its downtown has followed the retail, restaurant, and residential pattern of revitalization we have seen in many other cities. Part of that downtown growth was the opening of the Perfect Plain’s taproom, downtown on East Garden Street, in November 2017.

    I visited Pensacola, to take part in its CivicCon public-discussion series, a few months after Perfect Plain opened. Naturally I made the taproom part of my inspection tour of the town (along with the stadium for the Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team, which has been put to creative use during the pandemic). I talked then, and have stayed in touch since, with D.C. Reeves, a Pensacola native and former sportswriter in his mid-30s. He co-founded Perfect Plain (with Reed Odeneal) in 2017, and has since written a how-to handbook for aspiring microbrewery entrepreneurs.

    Over the next two-plus years, the business grew fast; Reeves hired more staff (17 people, from the original 8), and Perfect Plain leased more space for expansion. Pensacola was on the rise as a resort destination. Although the brewery’s only sales were (by choice) through its own taproom, rather than through retail or restaurant distribution, by early this year Perfect Plain had entered the top quartile of overall beer production in the state.

    The team at Perfect Plain, before the pandemic (Courtesy of Perfect Plain)

    But what happens now, when the very elements of a downtown brewery’s success—crowds in the taproom, live events, drop-in traffic from tourists or ballgame crowds or shoppers strolling the downtown—are gone or diminished?

    When I talked with Reeves last week, he repeated some themes I’ve heard and reported on elsewhere. For instance, he told me that his company was in better shape than some other, newer outlets, because it had nearly three years to build its brand and generate community support. And all-fronts scrambling, he said, was an expected part of the start-up path.

    “There is this built-in creativity to the business,” he said. “If you have a brewery, or want to open a brewery, you know you’re going to have to claw and fight and create to keep a business alive.” He and his team ramped up sales of canned beer-to-go; they produced and sold hand sanitizer, the profits from which went directly to the staff. The company’s scrambling had been centered on trying to minimize layoffs. Perfect Plain received about $90,000 in PPP grants and devoted it all to staff salaries. Those funds expired in June. Since July, Reeves and Odeneal have reduced their own salaries to zero.

    And, as we had heard elsewhere, Reeves underscored that the craft-brew business had always been volatile. The current crisis, coupled with an already impending plateau of craft-beer saturation, was weeding out any company without a sound business strategy—in addition to penalizing others that simply had not had enough time to establish their brands.

    But he also mentioned a distinctive Florida aspect: the “magical hotdog,” or plate of food.

    Florida’s handling of the COVID-19 threat has been, at best … well, you can fill in the adjective. One of its regulatory aspects was a bright-line distinction between “restaurants” and “bars.” In the closings-and-openings of businesses across the state, enterprises officially classified as restaurants were at first treated like bars, both of which were closed down. Then restaurants were given much more leeway to reopen while bars remained closed. Since restaurant owners were also desperately doing whatever they could to survive, the result was an additional challenge for businesses like Reeves’s.

    “What we’ve seen is, in effect, restaurants becoming bars,” Reeves told me. “You can sit outside and have drinks all afternoon, but if you’ve got that plate of jalapeño poppers, it’s ‘safe’”—because you’re in a “restaurant.” The same drinks with the same spacing on a similar outdoor patio, minus the jalapeño poppers, would mean you were in a “bar,” which was supposed to be shut down. “The rules put a brewery like ours, with expansive square footage to space people out, in the same category as a boom-boom room in Miami,” Reeves said.

    Inside the Perfect Plain taproom (Courtesy of Perfect Plain)

    Because their business plan was based solely on sales on their own premises, closing the taproom initially cut off their entire revenue stream. “But it was a different market when everyone was closed down”—that is, bars and restaurants alike. “We could capitalize on having an exclusive product and do the things breweries know how to do”—including to-go sales of canned beer. “We’ve been ready to wash cars, deliver on an ice-cream truck, do whatever it takes,” Reeves said. But when the restaurants were opened and the bars were not, revenues plunged once again. “It’s hard to convince someone to pick up a can of beer to go when they can sit on a restaurant patio and drink all day and night as if it’s a bar,” Reeves told me in an email.

    What was the answer? The civics-course response was an open letter from Florida’s craft brewers to the governor, asking for comparable treatment to restaurants. Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (which oversees brewery and liquor licenses), responded with a tour of small breweries around the state, including a stop in the Florida panhandle. He heard from Perfect Plain and its counterparts about strategies for reopening, and what to do in the case of another spike. After the trip, Reeves told me, “we felt heard by Halsey,” and new plans may be in store.  

    In the meantime, the scramble-for-survival answer was to convert their taproom into a “restaurant” as quickly as possible, a trend rapidly spreading statewide. (Here is a Pensacola News Journal report on the ways bars were rushing to obtain “restaurant” licenses.) “Hot dogs, hummus, chips and salsa—we’ve got it!” Reeves said. Just inviting a food truck wouldn’t qualify for a restaurant license. (Florida has since allowed it if the truck’s permanent address is the brewery/bar) But the Perfect Plain building had a sink and kitchen equipment in a back room. “We worked full bore for about seven days to get it all ready, and get our plan set for review..” Hotdogs, hummus — “We’ll do what it takes.”


    Almanac in Alameda, California: Almanac’s story differs from that of Perfect Plain in several obvious ways. Almanac is nine years old, versus nearly three for Perfect Plain. From the start it has been based in the prospering and food-and-drink conscious San Francisco Bay area, rather than in a town of 50,000 close to the Florida-Alabama border. And comparatively little of its business has been made up of direct sales through its own taproom, compared with distribution through other outlets. (For the record: One of my sons, an Almanac customer in California, has invested in the company.)

    But the sharpest difference is how Almanac has fared through the pandemic. While most food-and-beverage outlets are scrambling to make it week by week, Almanac just had its best quarter ever.

    Why, and how? I asked Damian Fagan, a design specialist and longtime homebrew enthusiast who, with Jesse Friedman, co-founded Almanac in 2011. The name was explicitly based on the venerable Farmer’s Almanac, and was meant to signal the farm-to-table (or in this case, farm-to-tap) spirit of the company’s operations.

    “The idea is to have ‘Northern California in a bottle,’” Fagan told me. “Farmers’ markets here are open 52 weeks a year. There is always a cornucopia of delicious agricultural offerings we can use.” Fagan pointed out that the farm-to-table ethos had made restaurants proud of describing where their tomatoes were grown and how chickens or cattle had been raised. “Beer is 100 percent an agricultural product, but people weren’t paying attention to it in that way.”

    In Almanac’s first few years of operation, before it had its own brewery, it specialized in “sours” and fruit-based beers, made under contract by local brewers. “Given where we are geographically, we have access to fruit year round.” Sours, which are aged in oaken wine barrels, now constitute about 30 percent of the company’s business. At one point it had a taproom in San Francisco, which has closed. Shortly before the pandemic it opened a sizable brewery and taproom in a former aircraft hangar near the former Alameda Naval Air Station, in the East Bay.  

    Almanac’s brewery and taphouse in Alameda, California, across the Bay from San Francisco (Courtesy of Almanac Beer)

    “When the first shelter-in-place order [for California] was delivered, in mid-March, we panicked, like most people,” Fagan told me. “We had to shutter our tap room, which had become a big part of our business.” The phone started ringing—with calls from wholesalers and other distributors canceling their orders, or greatly reducing their scale.

    “We wondered, is the sky falling?” Fagan said. The key to survival, he told me, was “to be nimble and adaptive.” Every business would use those words, but Fagan laid out what that meant, specifically, for his company.

    “The first thing we did, within 72 hours, was to spin up an online beer store—a direct-to-consumer channel that we had not had before.” People anywhere in California can now order their beer online, for delivery to their homes. Almanac pushed online sales hard in its social-media outlets. Business through this new channel grew rapidly, and according to Fagan “went a very long way in filling the giant hole caused by closing the tap room.”

    Almanac also quickly ramped up to-go sales of canned beer, from its Alameda brewery. Last year Almanac had invested in its own canning line; this meant it could avoid some of the problems other breweries encountered in trying to shift rapidly to takeaway sales. Recently I described how the Bent Paddle brewery, in Duluth, Minnesota, had made tough COVID-era safety standards part of its brand. Almanac took a similar approach. It had customers stand in line; it set up contactless pick-up; “we really dialed in on ways for people to feel safe,” Fagan said. “The irony is, when we combine to-go sales with the online store, we’re actually generating more revenue through our taproom with it being closed, than when it was open.” Almanac’s overall revenues for the first half of this year are about 10 percent higher than for last year—even with the near-disappearance of its taproom and restaurant sales.


    Almanac has one other enormous advantage: Just weeks before the pandemic, its distributor made a deal with Safeway, which means its beers will be carried in some 170 Safeway stores in Northern California, along with some other retail outlets. Last month I quoted Jim Koch, of Sam Adams in Boston, on the make-or-break, life-or-death power that distributors have over many start-ups in this industry. Fagan said that Almanac, which had had difficult distributor relationships in the past, was now on the good side of that divide—“which allowed us to get this massive placement all at once.”

    Sales through distributors now account for most of Almanac’s revenue. And in these stores, the company is now benefiting from the same “flight to quality”/“trading up” process mentioned before. “Instead of buying a four-pack of beer in the store, they may buy a case,” Fagan said—and of fancier products, like his. “People are buying in higher volumes, and drinking at home more.” The public-health aspects of this part of the pandemic are still to be understood. As a business trend, it is keeping some small companies alive.

    Are these the biggest business and civic stories of America’s current disastrous dislocations? Of course they are not. But the rise of small, locally minded restaurants, coffee shops, bars, breweries, and other gathering places has been an important element in many cities’ growth in the past decade. Whether, and how, small businesses like these survive is important too.

  • Another Lesson From the Roman Empire

    A view of the "Temple of Dioscuri" at Fori Imperiali in Rome
    A view of the "Temple of Dioscuri" at Fori Imperiali in Rome Tony Gentile / Reuters

    A year ago, I published a piece in the print magazine about that long-standing object of American fascination, the Roman Empire. Usually, and usefully, Americans have over the centuries looked to Rome for guidance on how their nation could avoid the predictable slide from republic to empire to conquest and dissolution. My favorite in this genre is the wonderful 2007 book Are We Rome?, by my friend (and Atlantic colleague) Cullen Murphy.

    But for last year’s piece I discussed some other books, arguing that what happened to Rome after the fall of the Western empire is what Americans should be studying. Especially in this era when central government—leadership on the imperial scale, you might say—was faltering, and when our counterparts to the Roman provinces (that is, our cities and states and regions) were by comparison so much more practical-minded and functional.

    My friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, wrote a response that highlighted some additional areas of useful comparison between the America of our time and the Rome of yesteryear. Now he is back with an extension of his argument. He calls this dispatch “From Sulla to Sullen: What the Fall of the Roman Republic Tells Us About Where Trump Is Taking Us.” I think it is instructive and worth reading, and with his permission I quote it below.

    Schnurer began by directing attention away from the end of the empire, and instead to:

    … the approaching decline of the Roman Republic, a half-millennium earlier.  As I wrote last year, “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  looked “a lot like the present moment to me.” I was thinking of the period dominated by the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers—a tag-team somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren —roughly a century before the Republic’s ultimate fall into dictatorship.

    I hardly expected then that within about half a year, Donald Trump would manage to fast-forward the country through half a century of Roman history, to the doorstep of the Civil Wars that destroyed what little was left of Republican Rome.

    Of course, no historical analogy is exact. The collapse of the Republic was brought on by a combination of structural flaws in its politics and governance, and the self-serving ambitions of ruthless individuals that exploited them. While the causes were many, inter-related, and complex, at their root was a system that defied any notion of the common good and was devoid of political means to resolve rather than exacerbate division.

    The Republic was the creation of a tight-knit oligarchy that had overthrown the preceding monarchy and, as a result, held a deep-seated determination never again to allow any one individual to accumulate so much power as to overawe all others.  

    The solution was not so much a separation of powers, as we conceive of it—officials simultaneously played executive, legislative and even judicial roles—as a vast multiplicity of individuals who could hold their posts only once, and for only a year. But this was no “citizen’s republic”:  A small coterie of privileged families held almost all these offices and voting was severely limited.

    Moreover, the term republic—from the Latin for “a thing of the public”—was meant to distinguish it from a monarchy, which was essentially the personal property of the ruler in which other people simply happened to live. But the Roman Republic was more like what we might think of as a “publicly held corporation” and, essentially, treated as private property. Officials used public office to profit personally and directly (and openly).

    Of course, it takes money to make money, so only the very wealthy could afford to pursue these rewards because, along the way, they were expected personally to pay for the lavish spectacles, such as the famous gladiatorial games, that sated the public, as well as major public works and public building projects. The Roman state, in short, while ostensibly “public,” had long since been thoroughly privatized.

  • A Plan to Grow 90,000 Trees in Los Angeles

    Courtesy of City Plants

    What is the most effective thing an individual can do about climate change? There are lots of possible answers: what you eat, how you vote, where and how you live, how you travel, and so on. All of them matter. For Americans, at this moment, the one that matters most may be how you vote.

    But among the steps most immediately within many people’s control, an important one is planting trees. Yes, there are cautions about doing this in the wrong way, or in the wrong places, or in ignoring the legacies of long-standing biases in zoning and city planning. (That is: It’s easy to plant trees in spacious residential neighborhoods; it’s harder when there’s only a narrow strip of ground between the street and a building front.) But overall, step-by-step reforestation can potentially be a significant help, which is why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling a number of local efforts toward that end.

    I am chagrined to say that until I looked into it, I had no idea that the second-largest city in the nation—Los Angeles, with its population of nearly 4 million people spread out over roughly 500 square miles—has a very ambitious program to use tree planting as an axis to connect job creation, climate sustainability, urban renewal, and economic equity and inclusion. (Perhaps it would have helped if I’d read at least the headline of a very good Mother Jones story by Jackie Flynn Mogensen last year. The headline was, “Los Angeles, a City Known for Its Freeways, Is About to Plant a Shit Ton of Trees.”)

    As it happened, I learned about the LA program largely by accident. The smallish Southern California town of Redlands had set an also-ambitious goal, of helping school children there plant more than 12,000 trees, which I wrote about when it was announced last year. The seedlings were purchased; a computerized way to map and track each one’s progress was set; and they were supposed to be passed out to school children on Earth Day this past April. That plan naturally hit a roadblock when California schools were shut down. As an alternative, the backers of the effort,  including the University of Redlands and the tech company Esri, managed to give away thousands of trees in June. But still some 4,000 seedling trees went unclaimed.

    Mainly through the efforts of our friend Shelli Stockton, of the University of Redlands, those little trees ended up last month in the hands of an organization called City Plants in Los Angeles (as shown in this video). City Plants, a program of the LA city government, is part of a broader LA effort toward radical expansion of the “urban forest” cover in this famously sunbaked part of the world.

    I talked this week with Rachel O’Leary, a native Angeleno who now directs City Plants, and with Rachel Malarich, a longtime expert in urban forestry who last year was named LA’s first-ever City Forest Officer. Here is what they told me about what they are doing, and why it might matter elsewhere.


    How City Plants started: Last year, in presenting his “Green New Deal” vision for the city (which you can download in full PDF version here), Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti set out a tree-planting campaign as one element of a larger sustainability-and-jobs strategy. The plan set a target to “plant and maintain” at least 90,000 trees across the city by 2021, and to keep planting trees at a rate of 20,000 per year. This was largely initially based on the “Million Trees” initiative under Garcetti’s predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but has evolved over the past decade to focus on planting the "right tree in the right place." Garcetti's Green New Deal also was explicitly focused on “canopy equity”—that is, of extending more of the benefits of large-tree cover to neighborhoods that are now typified by asphalt and concrete rather than greenery.

    Courtesy of Shelli Stockton

    What it does: The City Plants program, as part of the larger urban-forestry program, offers trees to residents of Los Angeles at no cost. Angelenos can get up to seven free “yard trees” for their own property, which they are expected to plant and care for themselves (with instructions like those shown in this picture). They can also request free “street trees,” which a City Plants team will plant for them. (Residents must agree to water the trees for five years.)

    For the labor involved in planting and handling the trees, City Plants coordinates with a variety of nonprofit and neighborhood groups —of which its major partner is the LA Conservation Corps. This LACorps is designed to give young people workplace skills, while they work on projects of larger community value.

    How is it financed? From a variety of public and private sources (info here), but mainly by LA’s main public utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or LADWP. Long-standing policy in California requires utility companies to underwrite energy-efficiency programs, including tree planting. LADWP has supported tree planting and innovations in urban forestry in Los Angeles for over a decade. The rationale for including trees as energy-savers, which you can find in longer and more detailed form here, is not just that tree growth stores carbon directly, as the trees mature. It is also that leafed-out tree cover reduces electricity and water use, especially the demand for air-conditioning. With support from LADWP, City Plants has an online calculator in which residents enter their street address, and get estimates of energy-bill savings from planting trees, in real time.

    “Trees are one of the least expensive, and most powerful, tools we have for improving our environment,” Rachel Malarich told me. “More and more research is showing how important a good, healthy tree canopy cover is for our communities as a whole—and how important it will be not just for our health right now but for our resilience in the face of a changing climate.” (Malarich went into more detail on these features in the Mother Jones interview.)  

    Courtesy of City Plants

    The program’s other ambitions: The 90,000-tree program concentrates on the parts of LA that are now the least forested and most parched. These are of course generally the lowest-income areas, and the most likely to become broiling “heat islands” because of climate change. The official goal, set out in the Green New Deal document, is to “Increase tree canopy in areas of greatest need by at least 50% by 2028 to grow a more equitable urban forest that provides cooling, public health, habitat, energy savings, and other benefits.”

    I asked Rachel Malarich how that would be possible, considering that many areas now short on trees are also short on space to plant them. The extensive suburban-style portions of Los Angeles were designed to include leafy glades; others have barely an unpaved square inch to support plant growth.

    “Trees need space to grow, and much of our infrastructure was set up not to allow that space,” Malarich said. “Frequently in these high-need areas you’ll only have a four-foot-wide parkway, where you can only plant a small tree. Or there are overhead power lines.” I asked, given these realities, how the city could realistically expect to equalize tree coverage across the city. It would be complex, and hard, and would involve short- and long-term creativity and planning, she said. But that was the deadline the city’s plan set out, “putting our feet to the fire.”

    Tree planters making the most of the space available, in Los Angeles (Courtesy of City Plants)

    Does it matter outside LA? The scale of Los Angeles makes anything that happens there consequential in its own right. But Rachel O’Leary argued that the partnership model—connecting different parts of the city and state government, and linking job-training and community-justice initiatives to climate sustainability—would be “replicable and scalable in other places.”

    “Trees are a powerful tool of climate resilience,” she said. “This is definitely one of the most powerful actions a resident can take, to take climate change into their own hands. That it is how we view it here in this city. And we would encourage other cities to develop partnerships like these.”

    “We’re not the only city that is dealing with this,” Rachel Malarich said. “If we can figure out this way of dealing with this issue of tree canopy inequity, we will have figured out something for other people to look at and learn from.”

    Is any of this “the” answer, for neighborhood justice, civic engagement, and climate sustainability. Obviously not. But it could well be part of an answer, in this large city and elsewhere.

  • Michael Jones Receives Royal Honors

    Michael Jones, then of Google, speaking at an Atlantic event about the future of mapping several years ago James Fallows / The Atlantic

    Over the years, I’ve frequently mentioned my friend Michael Jones, a computer scientist and geography whiz. Nine years ago, he was a leading figure in my Atlantic story “Hacked,” the saga of what my wife Deb and I learned when her email account was taken over by international hackers. For an Atlantic column around the same time, I interviewed him on the way omnipresent, always-available mapping was likely to change people’s habits and lives. And before any of this, he had added to world knowledge with his explanation of “Boiled Frog” science. As he laid out in this guest post, careful experiments in 19th-century Germany established that a frog would indeed sit still in a pot of ever-hotter water—but only if its brain had already been removed.  

    Outside our household, Michael Jones is known, among other things, as one of the guiding forces behind Google Earth and Google Maps. When you see your neighborhood, or your planet, from above on a computer, or follow turn-by-turn directions on your phone, he is one of the people you have to thank.

    Among the bright sides in the current pandemic nightmare is the news that this spring Michael received the “Patron’s Medal” from the Royal Geographical Society, in London. I am by nature wary of anything involving the concept of “Royal” (for reasons laid out long ago here), but I make an exception in this case. I am delighted to learn of this overdue recognition for Michael Jones.

    As the Society’s announcement put it:

    The 2020 Patron’s Medal has been awarded to Michael Jones for his contribution to the development of geospatial information.

    Baroness Chalker said: “Michael Jones is a role model for future generations of geographers. From his beginnings as a software engineer, inventing and filing his own patents, through to his role as Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, his inspiring career trajectory is charted by his vision to redefine mapping from static lines and symbols to an interactive geographical web of context and information. It’s hard to overstate the importance that Google Earth and Google Maps has had on the public worldwide and how Michael’s pioneering work has democratised and popularised cartography and spatial awareness. Today we recognise his extraordinary contribution and his continued advocacy for the benefits of geography. He whole heartedly deserves the Society’s highest recognition.”

    Michael Jones said: “This recognition is a signal honour for an idea that started in my head and which, through the work of many, resulted in the Google Earth used by billions of people around the world. On behalf of colleagues who laboured to make this dream of Earth and Maps a reality, and in full credit to the inspiring attainments of all who have come before us in the quest to better understand the Earth, I can only say that the ‘Earth-in-your-hand’ idea has never had a greater friend than the Royal Geographical Society, to whom we humbly offer our gratitude.”

    As a fellow Yank, I will razz Michael for writing “signal honour”—but it couldn’t be more deserved, with the British u or without. Congratulations. And you can read more about his story and outlook in this interview.

  • What Happens to Small Companies Now?

    Members of the Escape craft-brewing team in Redlands, California. From left: Josh Fisher, Miles Taylor, Melissa Fisher, Scott Wiener, and Miguel Mascarenaz. Escape is one of thousands of craft breweries that have helped revitalize their towns but are now just trying to survive. Courtesy of Escape Brewing

    Earlier this week I mentioned the surprisingly important role that craft brewing had played in downtown renewal across the country over the past decade. And I talked with one of the pioneers of that movement, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company, about how this part of America’s startup economy was likely to fare.

    Here are reports from two companies of a similar spirit but entirely different scale from Koch’s nationally distributed Samuel Adams brand. One is in northern Minnesota; the other, on the edge of the Mojave desert in Southern California. Each illustrates a path small, locally conscious firms are taking to survive the current economic and public health disaster.


    Duluth, Minnesota: Over the past four years, I’ve visited and written about the small Bent Paddle Brewing Company of Duluth—and have retained interest because the saga of this startup has involved a lot more than its (very good) craft beer.

    The two young couples who founded the company ten years ago—Karen and Bryon Tonnis, and Laura and Colin Mullen—wanted to see if their new little business could be part of a larger revival in the tattered, ex-industrial Lincoln Park district of Duluth. As Deb Fallows and I saw in repeat visits and reported here and here, they had begun succeeding in that neighborhood-revival role—plus others, like being part of a Duluth’s emergence as an outdoors and tourist destination, and helping protect the waters of deep, cold Lake Superior, on whose western tip Duluth sits.

    Each time we’ve visited their part of town, we’ve seen a few more visitors, another restaurant or food truck, another little office or store. Meanwhile, Bent Paddle’s main business, as a taproom and brewery, continued to grow. Every time we talked, the four founders stressed that they’d grown mainly thanks to community supports (including advice from local business people and loans from local banks), so they felt an obligation to be part of the community’s long-term development.

    The Bent Paddle team, in 2016. From left, Bryon Tonnis, Karen Tonnis, Laura Mullen, and Colin Mullen. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    But what now? This spring, Bent Paddle’s own taproom was of course closed, as were the restaurants and bars through which it sold most of its output. Could a little business like this survive, and could its surrounding neighborhood? This week I spoke with Laura Mullen in Duluth to ask how Bent Paddle had fared.

    “During March and April our business was down about 50 percent,” she said. “No events at our site,” which had been an ever-busier civic gathering center. (We once saw a local-writer’s club holding a meeting in a side room.) “No sales to bars or restaurants,” which were about half of its total volume. “Draft beer was not happening anywhere.” Bent Paddle had to buy back some of the kegs it had shipped to bars and restaurants. Other kegs, already in warehouses, went past their shelf life and could no longer be sold.

    Fortunately from the brewers’ point of view, Minnesota classified liquor stores as some of the “essential” businesses that could stay open despite a general lockdown. “That made us ‘essential workers,’” Mullen said, “because we were supplying products to liquor stores.”

    Among the customers they could still reach in Duluth and elsewhere, Bent Paddle saw the same pattern that Jim Koch, of Sam Adams, recently described to me: People who would otherwise have gone out to a restaurant or bar were in many cases “trading up” to buy nicer food or drink to have at home, still for a lower overall cost. (A fascinating report in Nielsen.com shows exactly how much at-home drinking would have to increase to offset the near-elimination of bar and restaurant revenues. Medical experts are on the alert for evidence that increased home drinking is creating medical or behavioral risks—beyond those of the pandemic itself.)

    Laura Mullen said that she expected this year’s sales, overall, to be about 20 percent lower than last year’s. Of the company’s 44 staff members before the shutdowns, it laid off 10. All but one has now returned. The company received a PPP loan to help cover the salaries. For the moment, Minnesota has allowed bars and restaurants to reopen for distanced outside service, and at 50 percent previous capacity indoor.

    What were the lessons of this company’s survival, so far? Laura Mullen suggested these:

    • An immediate pivot: “When the taproom closed, we could still do to-go beer,” she said. “The minute [the state order] hit, after we shut the taproom we created all these signs and online videos,” promoting the idea that Bent Paddle was still open and explaining how to buy very safely canned beer to take home.  
    Instructions on buying beer, in the time of COVID (Courtesy of Bent Paddle Brewing Co.)
    • Going all-in on masks and distancing: None of the signs and videos that Bent Paddle put up were about resisting or working around the shutdown or distancing order. All were about how to work with the rules. On March 20, they posted a three-minute Facebook video in which Laura Mullen walked potential customers all through the stages of picking up beer safely from their brewery. “We get a few Yelp comments complaining about our procedures,” she told me. “But we got many more complimenting us and saying that our safety protocols were top-notch, and they could feel comfortable coming here.”
    Bent Paddle’s newly distanced outdoor seating (Courtesy of Bent Paddle Brewing Co.)
    • Reliance on the local: When I first met them, the four Bent Paddle founders told me how important local-bank support had been when they started the company. Laura Mullen said the same was true for surviving the current emergency. “A lot of people who had bigger-bank relationships had trouble getting their PPP loans,” she said. “We have a small local bank,” whose officers the company had worked with for years, “and we were able to get things arranged very quickly. We’ve heard that across the board, that people dealing with smaller banks are in better shape.”

    • Concern for the neighborhood: Bend Paddle’s success has been an important part of the Lincoln Park area’s revitalization. Now people are still coming to pick up beer, but not staying to shop in the little boutiques and smaller businesses. Their margins are thinner, and their products are less recession-proof than beer. Mullen said that she was even more concerned about longer-term effects on the neighborhood than on her own company.

    Redlands, California: More than a dozen years ago, when I was living in China, I visited my original hometown of Redlands several times (for family-illness reasons) and noted the emergence of a craft-brew industry there. The pioneering local company was sited right at a small airport and was named, with an aviation theme, Hangar 24.

    On recent visits to Redlands I’ve noted the emergence of a new company, called Escape Craft Brewery. It’s located in an unglamorous commercial complex not far from Interstate 10, but its vibe and style are of the tropical carefree getaway. “We designed the name Escape for that idea,” Melissa Fisher, who cofounded the brewery with her husband Josh six years ago, told me last week. “You can’t always get away. But you can always escape. You can sit outside, open a beer, and be someplace else for a few minutes.”

    Courtesy of Escape Craft Brewery

    Before opening the company, Josh Fisher was an avid home brewer, with a day job as a firefighter. Melissa worked as an aesthetician in a salon. They spent two years scouting the area for an appropriate site—with parking, brewing space and facilities, affordable rent, appropriate zoning, outdoor patio space for the usually warm Southern California weather, and so on.

    They found it in a modest storefront close to the I-10 freeway, amid discount stores and carpet-cleaning shops. Based mainly on the quality of their products, Escape’s beers and ambience grew in popularity. It expanded into a next-door property and had 10,000 square feet of space, about half of it for a tasting-room and taproom, and half for a game room where, according to Melissa Fisher, they also had live music, private parties, “dog adoptions” and other civic events. This August they had been planning to open a second site in Redlands, with renovation of an an abandoned warehouse building much closer to downtown. They were also preparing for an expansion to the resort-coastal city of Laguna Niguel.

    In March, most of their business went away, all at once. No taproom traffic, which had been almost 80 percent of their total revenue. No private events, no live music, no community gatherings—and on top of that, no sales to the bars and restaurants that had been carrying Escape’s beers. “A couple of places even asked if they could send their kegs back,” Melissa Fisher said. “Usually that’s illegal, but the rules were lifted this time”—and they were legally able to re-package some of the product as “beer to go.”

    Melissa and Josh Fisher, inside the Escape tap room (Courtesy of Escape Craft Brewery)

    How would they survive? “I think that if this had been in our first year or two, it would have been monumentally bad for us,” Melissa Fisher said. “We probably could not have made it.” But in Escape’s six years of operation, it had built a local following, and the Fishers had saved their profits to invest in their planned expansions (and instead are using them to cushion losses now).

    Like Bent Paddle, Escape quickly shifted, mainly to take-out sales. Instead of draft beer poured into glasses in the tap rooms, they would sell beer in cans for customers to pick up. (Side note: a decade ago, I was surprised by the shift among craft brewers from glass bottles to aluminum cans. Now the shift is all but complete. I can barely remember the last time I bought beer that came in a bottle.) It quickly put up a website for online orders of to-go beer and saw many of its longtime customers make that change.

    This kept the doors open, but with an unpleasant real-world surprise. In the previous post I mentioned the all-important role of something most beer customers are barely aware of: the beer-wholesalers business. In the case of Escape, the challenging practicality was how hard and expensive it could be for a small operation like theirs to try to switch to canned-beer sales.

    Start with the cans themselves. “A big brewer might pay 8 or 10 cents per can,” Fisher said. Because they’re buying in small volume, “We’re paying somewhere between 34 and 74 cents per can, and that’s before we put the label on it”—or the beer into it. “Then you run into the shortages because there’s a rush on everything”—of cans, of labels, of glass growler bottles, of aluminum “crowler” cans. Before the pandemic, state regulators had to pre-approve the labels for canned beer. Now they have waived some of the rules, and Fisher and her team have been filling in part of the label information with Sharpies.

    At the taproom, a pint of beer might have sold for six or seven dollars, so a round of four pints would bring in more than $25. Those same four pints, as a take-out order, go for $10 or $12, of which three dollars or more would be just for the labels and cans.

    So the Fishers are selling beer but at a tiny margin, which barely covers their costs. Before, with full service, they would typically have six or seven employees on a Friday night. Now, to manage take-out, they have one or two. (Several of the employees have voluntarily reduced their hours, so others can have them.) Escape has expanded outdoor seating, in the parking areas and loading dock outside their tap room. “We’re lucky to have that space,” Melissa Fisher said. “But when it’s 98 to 102 degrees—even when we have cooling machines, even with a beer—not everyone can handle being outside.” Like many other brewers and distillers, they’ve also been selling a line of hand sanitizer.

    “What we’re making now, is keeping the lights on,” she said. “And we’ve had a huge amount of support from people who’ve become our friends.” Because of their savings, and adaptability, they expect to keep going, and ultimately to expand. But what they’re doing now isn’t sustainable, she said. “Something has to change.”

    Something does. Stories like these deserve notice, in my view, because little businesses like Bent Paddle and Escape have played such an outsize role in bringing vitality and local-connectedness to so many American towns.

    Coming next, two other stories, with other implications, from northern Florida and the Bay Area of California. And after the jump, reactions from two brewers.

  • Will Craft Brewing Survive?

    A display of Samuel Adams beers, from the Boston Beer Company headquarters during its 30th anniversary celebration in 2014
    From the Boston Beer Company headquarters during its 30th anniversary celebration in 2014 James Fallows / The Atlantic

    A few decades ago, “American beer” had the same connotation in the world of brewing as Velveeta-style “American cheese” had for connoisseurs of Stilton or Brie. Mid-20th-century American beer culture was known for its handful of giant breweries, and for the unadventurous, bland lagers they pumped out.

    In those days, brewers in England or Belgium or Germany would roll their eyes at what Yanks considered “good beer.” It was like French or German bakers talking about American white bread.

    Now, of course, the tables have turned. I’ve seen little brewpubs from Beijing to Bogota, and Athens to Amsterdam, that feature “American-style craft beer.” It’s easy to make fun of the recent era of micro-brews and macro-hops. But the modern rise of American craft brewing has been a genuine success story of entrepreneurship, localism, small-business creativity, and in many places, of civic renewal.

    Before everything changed because of the pandemic, America’s craft-brew industry was still growing—though more slowly and unevenly than in the true boom era a few years earlier. (There are fascinating details in this BrewBound industry analysis from a few months ago.) The number of breweries in the country had fallen below 100 by the early 1980s, in the depths of mega-brewer concentration. In 2018, it passed 7,000 and was still rising.

    But what will happen now? I’ve been following up with breweries large and small around the country, and I’ll begin with the views of Jim Koch (pronounced cook), well known from TV commercials for Sam Adams beer and as the face of the company he co-founded with Rhonda Kallman in 1984.

    I called Koch partly because of his role as one of the pioneers of American craft brewing, which I described in an Atlantic article about him on the 30th anniversary of the company’s founding. (Among the other significant pioneers were Ken Grossman, of Sierra Nevada in Chico, California; Jack McAuliffe, of the New Albion brewery in Sonoma; Fritz Maytag, of Anchor Steam in San Francisco; and Jimmy Carter, of the White House. It’s a story for another time, but Carter helped make the modern craft movement possible by deregulating home brewing in the late 1970s.)

    Jim Koch, cofounder of the Boston Beer Company and public face of Samuel Adams beer, at the company’s headquarters around the time of its 30th anniversary, in 2014 (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    I also wanted to talk with Koch because he’s been in the news. Many things about American brewing still operate in the shadow of 1920s-era Prohibition. During its nearly 14-year run, from the start of 1920 to near the end of 1933, Prohibition’s ban on legal drinking killed off most of what had been a thriving local brewery industry across the country. (Before widespread refrigeration, beer was mainly a locally made-and-consumed product, since it was hard to ship.) Even after the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, states were freer to regulate business involving alcohol than most other forms of commerce, and many burdensome regulations remained. These included the home-brewing ban that Jimmy Carter finally overturned, and onerous “distributor” laws that distort the industry now.

    “You don’t hear about lumber wholesalers who are fabulously rich,” Jim Koch told me last week. His point was: You do hear about beer wholesalers and distributors. For instance, John McCain became rich when he married his second wife, Cindy Hensley, who had inherited control of her family’s hugely lucrative Hensley distributorship in Arizona. Lumber mills, and most other businesses in the United States, are allowed to adjust their business plans and sell online or directly to customers if they choose, without going through wholesalers. By contrast, in most states brewers large or small may not legally sell directly to customers (outside their own taprooms, allowed in many states). Instead they must go through distributors—who can end up making as much from each case of beer as the brewer does.

    In the Sam Adams home territory of Massachusetts, the relevant law was one that, in effect, permanently bound a brewery to whatever distributor it had initially done business with. “In Boston, I can only sell my beer to a single distributor,” Koch told me. “And retailers can’t get it from anyone but that distributor. This might have made sense 50 or 80 years ago, when the wholesalers were quite small and the brewers were all-powerful.” But now, he said, the dynamic has flipped. The brewers are small and proliferating new businesses. The distributors—only two main ones in the Boston area—had much more power, and if they decided not to feature a new brewery or line of beer, there was very little the brewer could do.

    As the craft brew industry has grown, complaints about this relationship have as well. For instance, five years ago, in an online Beer Advocate forum about possible changes in the Massachusetts law, one person wrote:

    Imagine you're a growing local brand (Night Shift, Newburyport, Notch, etc) that is suddenly railroaded by Not Your Fathers Root Beer and beers of its ilk flooding the market and you end up relegated to the back-end of your distributor’s priority list. Maybe you'll get their attention again when the current fad dies down, but maybe not. But hey, you signed a contract 6 months ago and are stuck for life as an also ran in your distributors portfolio.

    Over the past decade, Koch and other Massachusetts brewers have waged a campaign to change the Massachusetts laws that in essence permanently bind brewers to their distributors. This month, there was a breakthrough, and one in which Koch and Sam Adams played a crucial part.


    Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams (and has now merged with Dogfish Head, originally from Delaware), is by far the biggest “small” brewer in Massachusetts. Thus it is also the most lucrative for its wholesaler. This summer, the brewers’ alliance pushing for reform agreed with wholesalers, after years of haggling, on a compromise. The wholesalers were willing to give up on the lock-in provision, but only for breweries producing less than 250,000 barrels a year. As everyone involved was aware, that exclusion applied to a category-of-one. The compromise would mean that all craft breweries in Massachusetts would be freed from the existing restriction—except the Boston Beer Company, which produces more than 4 million barrels of Sam Adams each year.

    Jim Koch’s willingness to support a reform that would help everyone but him was reportedly the key in moving the reform legislation forward. As Matt Murphy of State House News Service wrote,

    Koch ... agreed in this latest round of talks to support a compromise that would exclude his company.

    “That was a big point in breaking the iceberg. Clearly this was much more difficult to resolve if Jim Koch and Sam Adams was still in the mix. Again, good faith in an effort to help the smaller craft brewers,” Senate President Karen Spilka said.

    In a statement, Koch said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made some brewers particularly vulnerable to wholesalers who might prioritize other products, and predicted that without reform some might not survive. He said that despite some concessions by wholesalers to include larger brewers, it was clear that the distributors would not support a bill that included Boston Beer.

    “From Lawrence to the Berkshires, craft brewers serve as economic engines, employers and draw tourism to their communities. If brewers have to wait another two years for a bill to be considered, some will not survive,” Koch said in a statement provided to the News Service by the company. “Boston Beer had to make a decision. At the end of the day, that decision was to sacrifice ourselves by being excluded from Franchise Law reform in order to protect the hundreds of our fellow craft brewers in the state.”


    “We’d been working on this for a long time,” Koch told me. “And then COVID hit. A lot of small breweries had tap rooms they relied on”—but those were ordered closed. “The wholesaler became life-or-death for a number of our members. It became clear that if we didn’t make a change, some of our members [small brewers] were not going to make it.”

    Koch said that when the wholesalers accepted a deal that would liberate all companies except his, he had to make a decision. But, “I didn’t have to think very long about what was the right thing to do,” he said. “We had to take the deal, even though it did not include me.” Koch, who is not quite the good-old-boy he portrays in TV ads, elaborated that “from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls” he couldn’t find a rationale for declining to support the agreement. (A dozen years earlier, as described in this article, he had taken a similar hit for the team. During the world hop shortage of 2008, he had shared some of Sam Adams’s strategic stockpile of hops with smaller brewers—as many of the smaller brewers have attested.)

    And what is the prospect for brewers in general, through the pandemic and shutdown? “So far, it has not been quite as devastating as we all thought,” Koch told me. Why? “Because people are actually drinking the same amount of alcohol, and seem to be trading up to more premium forms.” The bars and restaurants are suffering, because fewer people can go there. The brewers are not suffering as badly, because people are buying as much or more of their product to drink at home.

    “I am assuming tap rooms won’t be closed forever,” he said. “Suppose it’s two years until things are ‘Back to normal,’ so that people are not freaked out about going out in public.” The question, he said, is how many of the small companies can survive in the meanwhile.

    Even before this crisis, Koch said, craft brewing had been a volatile though growing industry. Even in “normal” times, the turnover rate for restaurants or brewpubs might be 10 percent per year, he said. “Suppose 10 percent of craft brewers will not be able to reopen. But those that have a sound, solid business model, and are creative with new products, I believe will survive.” He pointed out that no sane person had started up a microbrewery primarily in hopes of ROI. “They loved beer. They wanted to be part of the community. Those motivations will be part of all of our getting through this adversity. And maybe your taproom will be a little more important to the community than it was before.”

    Next up: Reports from some of these much smaller brewers, and from another major player.

  • Three Guides to the Next America

    The U.S. Supreme Court building
    Sarah Silbiger / Reuters

    This note is to kick off a resumed set of chronicles in the “Our Towns” series, after  time away for a long Atlantic project on the origins of this era’s public-health and economic disaster.

    The results of that project are here: “Three Weeks That Changed Everything.” If you’re wondering, the three weeks I have in mind are: January 1, 2020—when first mentions of an outbreak of a new “pneumonia type disease” in central China would have appeared in the CIA-produced “President’s Daily Brief,” at the White House, which in normal governing circumstances would have triggered the beginnings of a coordinated federal response—through January 22, when the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 turned up in the United States. I argue that at the start of that time, it might have been possible to contain the disease near its point of origin, before it became a global disaster. By the end of that time, the U.S. had made fateful decisions that put us on our current catastrophic path.

    In a bleak way, the past few months have underscored a message Deb Fallows and I have been discussing for years: At a time of federal-government paralysis and worse, the functionality and cohesion at many points in local- and regional-level America have been the main source of resilience.

    I am careful to say “at many points” rather than “everywhere,” because some governors, and a handful of mayors, have followed the disastrous federal example of treating the pandemic as another front in the national-politics war, rather than as public-health emergency. But most governors (of both parties), plus an overwhelming majority of mayors (whose offices are usually not strongly partisan), and a larger and larger share of corporate, private, and non-profit organizations have offered such traction, practical-mindedness, and civic spirit as the nation can display at the moment.

    Of course, these dispersed efforts are not enough, in coping with a disaster of this scale. If national governance fails, the whole nation suffers—as does the world, which in previous disease crises had relied on the U.S. to take the lead (again, as my Atlantic piece argued). But local, statewide, regional, and private/NGOs are what we have work with—and learn from, and expand—right now.

    To kick things off today, three developments that shed light on how the parts of America that still work can be applied to the parts now so badly failing.


    1) “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences:

    I know, I know: Another commission report, with another lofty title, from another worthy institution, grappling with another of our biggest public challenges. But this one is different and is worth paying attention to. (For the record: I saw an early version of the report but had nothing to do with its preparation or contents. The web version of the report is on the Academy’s site here, and a free downloadable PDF is here.)

    The report’s diagnosis of America’s civic, cultural, and governing problems will be recognizable to most readers. The real payoff is the recommendations. There are 31 of them, in six categories, and they’re both impressively ambitious and surprisingly practical-minded, which means that—in theory—they are achievable.

    For instance, the sweep of the ideas involves proposals as consequential (and logical) as changing the Supreme Court to fixed 18-year terms for justices, with one nomination every two years; or switching to ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections, to avoid third-party “spoiler” results; or adopting the Australian model in which voting in federal elections is an expectation-of-citizenship, like showing up for jury duty. Significant as such changes might be, only one of the 31 proposals would require amending the Constitution—all the rest could be done by Congress or state legislatures, or would require no legal changes at all. The one exception is this—essentially, correcting the Supreme Court’s ruinous Citizens United ruling from 2010:

    RECOMMENDATION 1.5 Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system, and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.

    There’s a lot more in the report, not all of which I agree with, but the vast majority of which would make America more workable at all levels of governance. Another example: stronger incentives to encourage a year of national service. And allowing states to create multi-member congressional districts, if in so doing they could reduce gerrymandering and ideologically “safe” seats.

    Congratulations to the three directors of the project, Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu, and to their colleagues who held meetings and citizen-hearings all around the country in coming up with their recommendations. This should be one of the roadmaps for digging out of the current rubble. For more on the fixed-term Supreme Court proposal, see a note* at the end of this item.

    Also: If you’re looking for a wry, quickly readable, yet informed and edgy discussion of the same topic, I highly recommend Democracy In One Book or Less, by David Litt. Readers of Litt’s previous book, Thanks, Obama, will need little prodding to get his new work. Litt was a young White House speechwriter for Barack Obama, and that previous book, published in 2017, was one of the funnier and more self-aware entries in the special niche-literary category of speechwriters’ memoirs. His new book is not exactly like Schoolhouse Rock, the corny-but-informative ’70s-era video series on how democracy works, including such classics as “I’m Just a Bill.” But it’s in the same spirit: whimsy and pop culture, enlisted toward the end of knowledge. Here’s the Washington Post review of Litt’s book. Read it!

    And in the same “bonus reading tips” spirit, please check out Joe Mathews, of Zócalo Public Square, on the useful thought experiment of California declaring independence (it won’t happen, but it’s clarifying to think about); and Quint Studer, a successful businessman who has become a civic leader in Pensacola, Florida, on how to broaden understanding of what it takes for democracies to survive.


    2) Right to Start, from the Right to Start Fund and Victor Hwang:

    Victor Hwang, originally trained as a lawyer, is a longtime tech entrepreneur and startup evangelist. I came to know him in his years with the entrepreneur-minded Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City. While there he emphasized the foundation’s findings that a huge share of America’s net job growth comes from brand-new, startup firms. Bigger firms obviously employ more people, but as time goes on they have little net job creation.

    The graph below, produced by the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates the pattern: In most recent years, long-established firms (gray line) either shed more jobs than they create, or add only modest numbers overall. By contrast, new firms (blue line) have added one to two million jobs nearly every year. The point is obvious once you think about it: Since startup firms, by definition, have no existing jobs to lose, every job they create is a net plus. But Hwang and his Kauffman colleagues have long emphasized a less obvious implication: that if an economy wants new jobs, it needs to foster the creation of new firms.

    “New” firms are responsible for most net job creation in the U.S. economy. (Graphic courtesy of the Kauffman Foundation)

    Now Hwang has devoted himself full-time to policies at the national, state, and local level that will make it easier rather than harder to start a small business, a small factory, even (someday) a small restaurant. Obviously this is all the more important now, as the small businesses that have been so crucial in city-by-city revival (as I described here) have come under new, intense pressure.

    At Kauffman, Hwang helped write the “America’s New Business Plan” policy guideline, which begins this way:

    America’s future depends on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs not only embody the American spirit, they also power our economy. The new businesses they start account for nearly all net new job creation… [Yet] starting and building a business has become harder and rarer in most of America….

    America remains a nation with vivid entrepreneurial dreams. More than 60% of Americans have a dream business in mind they would love to create, and more than 40% would quit their job and start a business in the next six months if they had the tools and resources they needed...

    There is a hole at the center of our economic discussion where hope should be.  

    Victor Hwang and his colleagues wrote that, and the rest of the manifesto, before the pandemic upended everything. But I think their recommendations for state legislators and regulators (here), for local officials and policy makers (here), and for federal candidates and office-holders (here) are worth your time and attention.

    Update: Victor Hwang’s organization has just released a video from Tulsa, about “The Legacy of Black Wall Street” there. The reference is of course to the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, whose centennial the city is planning to observe in appropriate ways next year.


    3) The Career Certificates Program, from Grow with Google:

    Back at the dawn of time, I wrote an Atlantic cover story called “The Case Against Credentialism.” It argued that the American higher-education system and associated “meritocracy” had less and less to do with the abilities that should enable people of different backgrounds to get ahead, or with the professional competence that society needed.

    That is: Parents understood that getting children into the right preschool helped them get into the right prep school, which helped them get the right test scores, which helped them get into the right college, which helped them … in some general way. (Mainly by getting to the top rather than the bottom of an unequal economy.) But as a society looked at the twin goals of maximizing opportunity and rewarding real performance, it made less and less sense to enable a system that gives such an edge to those who start out with advantages.

    This is a point many people recognize in principle, though it is hard to implement in practice. It’s a reason Deb and I have given such emphasis to community colleges over the years, for instance here (about Kansas and Michigan) and here (about Ohio). Community colleges matter because they are the part of the U.S. educational system most committed to matching people who need opportunities with the opportunities this era has opened up.

    The high-tech industry is not often seen as a vehicle of rapid class mobility within the United States. For people from around the world, yes! Less so for people without financial or educational advantages inside the U.S.

    In the past few years, Deb and I have often referred to initiatives by Grow With Google, a non-profit arm of Google started in 2017 and devoted to applying advanced tech tools to job-search, civic resilience, and local-startup ends. (For the record: Grow With Google was an underwriter for some of our travel and reporting last year. Deb and I had known, liked, and collaborated with members of this organization in the time well before their business relationship with the Atlantic—and have stayed in touch with them thereafter.)  

    This past week Grow With Google announced a new program to offer transferrable certificates, in a variety of tech-related fields. The crucial aspect here is the standardization and nationwide (or international) transferability of these credentials. The training may be under Google’s auspices, but the goal is a credential that people can use to show their proficiency when applying for jobs elsewhere.

    “Everyone says ‘Bachelor’s degree or equivalent’ in job listings,” Lisa Gevelber, VP of Global Marketing and a leading figure in Grow With Google, told me last week. “But there was no standard definition of what that ‘equivalent’ is.” Five years ago I wrote about an effort in San Bernardino, California, to provide a standardized, transferrable credential in machine-tool and similar skills. Grow With Google is trying to do that on a much broader scale, in an array of skills that have much faster-than-average growth in job availability, and much higher-than-average wages. In addition to tech-related fields like IT support, the certificates cover project-management and data-analytics skills that can be applied in a range of industries.

    “A college degree is just out of reach for lots of folks, but a great job doesn’t have to be,” Gevelber told me. “People want to get started, but they don’t know what would be a specific, realistic pathway.” The new certification program, operated in partnership with 100 community colleges around the country (and eventually with “career technical” programs at many high schools), intends to offer the same kind of specific “here’s the next step” certification that people intending to be lawyers have with the LSAT and law degrees, or that aspiring pilots have with FAA certifications. The program also offers its students extensive free “soft skill” training—practice in writing resumes, preparing for job interviews, and generally filling in the background that people from more advantaged backgrounds would already have. Students in these programs pay $49 per month to Coursera, which hosts them. Lisa Gevelber said that students typically finish in three to six months, at a total cost of $150 to $300—and that Google is funding 100,000 scholarships, in addition to other reduced-cost options.

    Standardized degrees for professional-class America—the BA, the PhD, the law and medical and related credentials—have been indispensable tools of mobility and opportunity for many people. Standardized and portable credentials for the rest of America are also important, which is why I think this initiative deserves notice.


    The main theme of my pandemic article was that people have thought hard about  “gray rhino” challenges—problems that, unlike “black swans,” are foreseeable and inevitable, but whose timing is unknown. In earlier administrations, they had come up with plans that could have saved us incalculable suffering, cost, and woe.

    Something similar is true of these civic and economic plans. People have thought about this! We should listen to them.

  • The Atlantic

    The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything

    Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

    Is This the Worst Year in Modern American History?

    Comparing 2020 to 1968 offers some disquieting lessons for the present.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #18: Time Is Speeding Up

    Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    Nearly every day of the past two weeks has brought a development that, by itself, would have been a major substantive and political event in other times. As a benchmark and reminder, a reckless move by a Democratic president after he had left office, and a glib off-hand comment by a Republican president while he was still serving, remain vivid, years after they happened, as axes of political, legal, and press consequences.

    For the Democrats, the instance was the decision by Bill Clinton, then 16 years out of office and husband of the Democratic candidate, to walk across the tarmac at the Phoenix airport in June, 2016, and talk with Loretta Lynch, who was Barack Obama’s attorney general. From that encounter grew Republican complaints that Clinton was “interfering” with the Justice Department’s investigation of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” then Lynch’s recusal from the case, then its effective transfer to James Comey, the FBI director, and then—you know the rest.

    For the Republicans, the moment came three days into the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, in 2005. On a visit to the drowning city, George W. Bush told Michael Brown, then head of FEMA, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

    Four years after the Lynch episode, anyone involved in politics remembers its role in making the phrase “But, her emails...” central to a presidential election. Fifteen years after Katrina, “Heckuva job” remains a part of the standard mocking vocabulary of public life.

    But almost every 24-hour span in public life, circa 2020, brings comparable developments. They risk being lost to memory, because of the Iguazu Falls-scale torrent of shocking-but-not-surprising assaults on civic, logical, and governing norms.

    Just as an unelaborated list, here are a few of the things that occurred over the days when the U.S. death toll from the pandemic was rising from nearly 70,000 to nearly 90,000. At least half-a-dozen of these would, in normal times, be front-page developments on their own.

    Starting two weeks ago, we have:

    • May 6: Trump and his administration essentially declared “Mission Accomplished” about the pandemic, and shifted from an emphasis on public-health effects to saying that the economy should be the real focus.
    • May 7: Trump’s complaisant attorney general, William Barr, had his Justice Department drop charges against Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to federal agents.
    • May 8: Unemployment claims increased by 20 million, and the unemployment rate reached the highest level since the 1930s.
    • May 11: Trump told a Chinese American CBS News reporter that she should “Ask China” about why the pandemic has done so much damage. More here.
    • May 12: Anthony Fauci (described one month ago here) offered downbeat testimony about the pandemic to a Senate committee, at odds with Trump’s own “We’ve done great!” statement the previous day.
    • May 12: The Supreme Court, in a phone-based remote session, heard arguments on whether Donald Trump had absolute immunity from congressional scrutiny into his tax records from before he ran for office.
    • May 13: Trump criticized Fauci, saying that his answer about a timetable for opening schools was “not acceptable.”
    • May 14: Richard Burr, a senator from North Carolina who has been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, resigned from that committee post (but not from the Senate) after the FBI seized his phone and other documents, in an investigation on whether had traded on inside information about the pandemic.
    • May 14: Rick Bright, formerly a senior vaccine-development official and now a whistleblower, testified on why he had been pushed out of his job for insisting that scientific standards be applied to some of Donald Trump’s drug recommendations.
    • May 15: Late on Friday night, the administration announced that it had fired the State Department inspector general who had been looking into possible financial irregularities involving Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and his wife. This was the latest in a long series of internal watchdogs whom Trump and his associates had removed.
    • May 16: Trump tweeted out his support for people in New York who were badgering and harassing local reporters. “People can’t get enough of this,” Trump wrote. “Great people!”
    • Also on the evening of May 16, Barack Obama delivered his video message to the graduating class of 2020. Obama was deliberate in not criticizing Trump directly—in contrast to his notorious ridicule of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, which arguably humiliated Trump so comprehensively that it fueled his desire to run for office. But Obama’s implicit message could not have been clearer.
        As a speechwriting note: Every time a leader addresses a community in time of trouble, the message needs to include these three elements, in order. First, empathy: I know this is hard, I know that you have suffered and are afraid. Second, confidence: We’ve been through tough times before, we will come out of this ahead. Third, a plan: Here are the next specific things we are going to do. You can look at any effective “time of trouble” speech, from Lincoln to FDR and onward, and see just this approach. Obama applied it in his brief address. Trump never does, since his messages always are: 1) I am doing such a great job, and 2) Everyone else is so unfair to me.

    Not every one of these items would qualify as a standalone, discussion-focusing, campaign-shifting, reputation-changing event, in normal times. But most of them would.


    On May 14, The Financial Times published a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:

    Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.

    On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:

    “Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”

    These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.

    And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.

  • Celina Pereira

    Air Travel Is Going to Be Very Bad, for a Very Long Time

    Flying used to be unpleasant. But scarcity, low demand, and public-health risks could make it unbearable.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #17: ‘Empathy and Simple Kindness’

    Reuters / Pool

    As the past week began, the Unites States was crossing 50,000 reported deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. As the new week arrives, the U.S. death total is 70,000.

    Of the countless extraordinary events in these seven days, a few that are worth noting:

    1) “Empathy and Simple Kindness.” This past Saturday, former President George W. Bush released a brief video whose subtweeted message was unmistakable. It recognized the suffering of those who had lost family members, or economic prospects, or hope itself; it emphasized the all of us rather than the us and them response to national crisis; and it appealed to the generous rather than the resentful in human nature.

    In short, it was the kind of message that leaders of any nation have been expected to transmit, as part of their duty, in time of national hardship. And it highlighted by contrast the signals of “empathy and simple kindness” that Donald Trump himself had never managed to convey or even feign.

    I have been as harsh as anyone on George W. Bush’s responsibility, in his time in office, for America’s foreign-policy and economic travails. (For more, see this, this, this, and this.) But it would be wrong not to recognize the way he was trying, 11 years after leaving office, to express the thoughts a nation expects from its leaders.

    The video raised a further possibility and question for this former president: What will he say as the next election draws near? The three other living former presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—are all Democrats. So for them, there will be no conflict between policy goals and party loyalty. All will, of course, try to help Joe Biden beat Donald Trump.

    In the 2016 election, the extended Bush family made no secret of its distaste for Donald Trump, who had after all ridiculed “Low Energy Jeb” Bush in the primaries. This new video suggests that George W. Bush’s estimation of Trump has not gone up. (For the record, two years ago, during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Bush did his best to persuade Republican senators to stick with Kavanaugh—who had been a White House staffer for Bush.)

    But would a former Republican president dare go public with a plea to save the country, and what he thinks of as his party’s principles, by voting for the opposition? The logic of this video suggests that Bush should. Could he actually do so? I’m not holding my breath, but Bush loyalists should be raising the question with him.

    2) “A great success story.” This past Wednesday, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, went on the First Family’s favorite TV program, Fox and Friends. He told the hosts that the federal government “rose to the challenge” and “this is a great success story.” You can listen to him yourself, starting 9:00 minutes into this clip.

    The day before Kushner spoke, the confirmed U.S. death toll from the pandemic exceeded the 58,000-plus U.S. fatalities inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the famous black granite wall in Washington. Since then, they have increased by about 2,000 per day.

    It is conceivable that selected parts of the federal response will eventually be seen as successes, though overall they appear to be catastrophic now.

    It is inconceivable that a favored in-law’s cheery declaration of a “great success story,” as tens of millions of people are losing their jobs and tens of thousands have lost their lives, will stand up well.

    3) “I will never lie to you.” I noted last month that the new White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, differed from her immediate predecessor in planning to hold press briefings at all. But she differed from past administrations’ press secretaries in that her history as a public figure was entirely in the role of cable-news partisan advocate.

    At her first press briefing, this past week, she told the assembled reporters:

    “I will never lie to you. You have my pledge on that.”

    You see her saying so 8 minutes into this C-SPAN video. Then she proceeded to … lie, on matters ranging from the Mueller investigation, to the prosecution of Michael Flynn, to the history of sexual-assault allegations against Donald Trump, to a range of others. Dan Froomkin set out the details in Salon and Annie Karni did so in the New York Times.

    My earlier argument was: The best press secretaries have recognized the fundamental torment of the job. The good ones are torn day-by-day between their assignment to put the best face on the administration’s policies, and their desire to stick as close as possible to the truth.

    Like Trump himself, Kayleigh McEnany seemed in her debut to be unconflicted. Her duty is only to the administration.

    4) “The plague should never have happened.” Back in March I noted Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”: that is, attacking others for the failings that seem most evident in himself.

    Bear that in mind, in considering Trump’s comments at a White House event this past week—and comparing them with the verdict likely to be rendered upon his administration. Trump said (as shown in this C-SPAN video):

    This plague should have never happened.

    It could have been stopped, but people chose not to stop it, and it's a very sad thing for the world

    Indeed.

  • A Company That Helps You Find Job B

    People are seated in an auditorium with rows of black leather seats. A few people raise their hands.
    Bitwise hosted a conference for International Women's Day Courtesy of Bitwise

    The tech-training and incubator company Bitwise, based in Fresno in California’s agricultural Central Valley, has been an important test case for the proposition that new, valuable, job-creating, and wealth-expanding businesses can arise anywhere, not just in the few familiar “superstar” cities.

    Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about Bitwise since first visiting its (then-tiny) headquarters five years ago. For instance, two reports from 2015 (here and here) explain why it’s worth taking “left behind” places like Fresno seriously as future economic hubs. This one, from 2019, covers how dramatically Bitwise’s operations have expanded in its brief history.

    Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin Jr., co-founders of Bitwise (Courtesy of Bitwise)

    Last week I spoke with the two co-founders of Bitwise, Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal (whom you see in the photo above), about what their company was doing to deal with the pandemic’s effects in their home site of Fresno, in other parts of the Central Valley, and in similar cities across the country.


    The Central Valley is within the same state borders as Los Angeles and Malibu, San Francisco and Palo Alto. But its situation, at this moment, has more in common with the crop-growing and meat-packing centers of Iowa, Kansas, and the Dakotas that have recently been in the news. It is “rich,” in the sense that its agricultural output feeds much of the country and the world. But it is “poor,” in the economic status and public-health vulnerability of many of its residents—notably including those who harvest the crops and process the meats.

    “We started with the awareness that we are a cash-rich company”—because of its rapid growth and businesses successes—“sitting in a poor town,” Jake Soberal told me. “So we felt a sense of obligation to use those resources for the betterment of our community.” I have seen enough of what Olguin and Soberal and their colleagues have done, over a long enough period, to view these as more than just empty words. (For instance: their role in the memorable “Unapologetically Fresno” campaign from a few years ago.)

    Their first step was to have Bitwise itself put out an offer to buy and deliver groceries to local people who needed help getting food. “The response was too overwhelming,” Soberal said. “We realized there was a deep need.”

    Their next step was to use their own tech tools, and work with the San Francisco-based tech giant Salesforce, to automate a system through which people could place requests for food, and the food could be purchased and delivered.

    The Bitwise team identified a local nonprofit thrift store whose normal business had evaporated, and hired its logistics staff to begin delivering food. “We soon saw one of the gaps in local and national food delivery systems,” Soberal told me. “That was the ability to deliver to individuals.” Food banks have dramatically expanded. But, he said, “the people most in need of food support are commonly without transportation, are sick or elderly, and don’t really have a way to get where the food might be.”

    Within days, they talked with the tech eminences Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, who had been investors in Bitwise and who co-founded the Kapor Center, which has a stated mission of “leveling the playing field in tech.” With backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise produced a software system and web site called OnwardCA.org, whose purpose is to help match people who have suddenly lost their jobs and livelihood with the few opportunities the pandemic disruption is opening up.

    Restaurant workers, retail staffers, employees in the hotel and tourism industry—all at once, they were out of work. “The way to reduce the truly catastrophic effects of these changes, is to minimize the time people are completely displaced,” Irma Olguin told me. “If there is a chance to match Person A with Job B, that can make a difference.”

    But what, conceivably, are these new “Job Bs”—at a time when the national unemployment rate is nearing rates not seen since the 1930s?

    “Our first thought was to start identifying industries with surge-hiring needs,” Jake Soberal said. Everyone has heard about Amazon’s hiring 100,000 additional logistics-and-delivery staffers. Olguin and Soberal said the pattern applied at some small enterprises as well. “The general categories are health care, agriculture, grocery, and logistics,” Soberal said. “Where we can make a difference is the openings that wouldn’t get much attention otherwise—the logistics company in San Bernardino that has 12 job openings, the trucking company in Fort Bragg that has 5.” With its backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise set up a large data-collection effort—looking through phone listings, making calls to the companies in places like San Bernardino or Fort Bragg—and assembling a job-opening data system for the state.

    “Restaurants may not be opening soon,” Soberal said. “But someone from a restaurant might be well matched for a grocery or food-supply job, or someone from a closed gym to a logistics center.”

    Last week, when I spoke with Olguin and Soberal, they were working with Gavin Newsom and his administration in California on the job-matching OnwardCA program available broadly through the state. Soon they expanded to Colorado. Then this week, on Tuesday, they announced the expansion of the program to states that together make up nearly one-third of the U.S. population. (In addition to California and Colorado, they are New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.)

    You can read details on the expanded OnwardUS program in the Bitwise announcement here. Is this “the” answer to today’s economic and public-health catastrophes? As I say about each new initiative, of course it is not—on its own. But it is another partial answer, emerging at the local and state level, in the absence of federal response. (And, as upcoming reports will note, the Bitwise job-matching approach parallels efforts that vastly larger tech companies, notably Google and Microsoft, have intensified during the pandemic.)

    “The world has been ignoring talent from communities where people are not used to looking,” Soberal told me, of Bitwise’s enterprises in general and the Onward programs in specific.

    “We’ve been tapping into that for six and a half years now. The software is being built by people in the Central Valley, black and brown people, from field-worker families. They were not ‘supposed’ to be part of the tech economy. What you’re seeing right now is the ability to tap into an emergency response in a matter of days—because that talent was invested in, and ready.”


    This report is part of a continuing series on organizations responding to the pandemic. For previous installments, please see these on: innovations from libraries; plans to protect the small businesses that have been crucial to local economic revival; changes in a statewide program in California; responses from a nationwide nonprofit network; recent military veterans converting a service ethic to civilian pursuits; and how an innovative tech organization in Idaho has tried to empower “creators” and improve the business ecosystem in smaller, non-coastal cities across the country.

    More from this series

  • Sparking a Small-Town Business Ecosystem

    A man at the front of the room speaks to a crowded room, with rows of seated people and more standing in the back to listen
    An event in the long-abandoned Elks Lodge in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, now an office center and civic space Courtesy of Innovation Collective

    The national-level response to the coronavirus pandemic descends from tragedy into catastrophe. The black granite slabs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington display the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in that war. Those deaths occurred over more than 15 years of conflict. At current rates, a larger number of Americans will have died from this pandemic within less than two months. Unemployment rates are already reaching levels that no American born after the Great Depression of the 1930s had witnessed or experienced.

    So the rest of the American system is left to pick up the slack. Mayors and governors, health workers and grocery employees, business people and religious leaders, teachers and parents. In recent installments Deb Fallows and I have described some of these responses: innovations from libraries; plans to protect the small businesses that have been crucial to local economic revival; changes in a statewide program in California; responses from a nationwide nonprofit network; and how recent military veterans are converting a service ethic to civilian pursuits.

    Today’s report is the first of two on relatively new tech companies, each based in a non-coastal, “left behind” part of the country, that have been bringing economic, educational, and life-prospect opportunities to their regions, and how they are now trying to cope with the current disaster. Today’s concerns the Innovation Collective, based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Later we’ll revisit Bitwise Industries, based in Fresno, California, which we have followed over the years.


    Innovation Collective: Nick Smoot, who is now in his late 30s, grew up in Coeur d’Alene. He moved away after high school and spent the next dozen years as a tech entrepreneur. He founded, built, and sold three internet-based companies (mainly involving test-prep and marketing—details here), and he became a speaker and commentator in the tech world.

    Courtesy of Innovation Collective

    Then at around age 30 he returned to Idaho. He told me that he came back to his home town for a reason that is related to fundamental debates about the American economy in recent years. Namely: how to share the opportunities and benefits of a tech-based economy more broadly—across regions, among races, for people of different backgrounds and economic groups—so that they create a broader-based, inclusive, fairer economy. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, and as an uneven recovery spread across the country in the next few years, the challenge of “inclusive growth” was discussed in countless reports and conferences, in political speeches and in newspaper articles. Like most of the other people we have been chronicling, Smoot believed that he could help these ideals and action plans into effect, back in his smallish (population 50,000) home town.

    “I think capitalism is great,” he told me, when we spoke on the phone last month. “But my goal is to reframe the word ‘capitalism,’ because a system that drives the production of too much, for the consumption of too few, has reached its limits.” He said that his goal was to use market incentives to create a tech-based business system “that is more stable and equitable—and to repair gashes in communities, rather than deepen them. We want to unlock potential in all people and especially those who feel they have been left behind.”

    The taming and repair of capitalism is, to put it mildly, a long-standing and complex issue. (Here are two big Atlantic stories I have done on just this topic, from 2015, based on a new project by Al Gore, and from 1993, about an obscure German economist named Friedrich List.)

    In practice, what this has meant in Smoot’s case is trying to foster, assemble, and connect the ingredients of a business-startup ecosystem in parts of the country that have felt cut off from the Bay Area-Seattle-New York technology boom. A few years ago he made a Vimeo statement summing up the ambitions, which you can see here. His “Innovation Collective” offers training sessions, mentor relationships, public and private events, supply-chain relationships, studies of regional economic possibilities, training in work-preparedness and other “life skills,” and other forms of “soft” infrastructure. Measures like these could seem airy or trivial—until you remember how central a role such informal ties have played in the rise of tech-economic centers in San Francisco, Boston, or Seattle, and how the absence of this soft infrastructure has hindered much of smaller-town, inland America.

    “I look on every citizen in town as a frustrated creator,” Smoot told me last month. “Because they are not creating, they are not happy—and the ones who are happiest are the ones who are able to create. We build communities around this idea of human potential.” Talent, ambition, and creative potential are very widely dispersed, he said. Opportunity has not been. That is the gap he has hoped his Innovation Collective could help close.

    In Coeur d’Alene, his organization developed a partnership that restored a long-vacant Elks building in the center of downtown. It became the “Innovation Den”—and now the site of over 60 offices, a barber shop, a coffee shop, a robotics and computer-science program, and a civic site, for events like the one you see in the photo above. The Innovation Collective has launched a low-cost tech-training program called Inspire. The IC offers different tiers of membership, from free to about $800 per year. It has started a venture fund, directed at new businesses in Coeur d’Alene and similar communities across the country.

    Smoot described to me some of its operations in Utica, New York; Brooksville, Florida; and Spokane, Washington. In each of the cities, the emphasis has been on economic niches that match the geographical, cultural, and business-history particularities of that town. Coeur d’Alene, for instance, has a strong robotics sector. Utica, like many other cities in the Northeast (for instance, Erie), has a long manufacturing heritage, in recent decline, and a diverse population including many immigrants and refugees. You can read about those and other projects here.


    On the territory of the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, Danamarie McNicholl of KREM interviews Megan Smith, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer, during a statewide tour to launch the Inspire program of the Innovation Collective. (Courtesy of Innovation Collective)

    All that was in the seven years before the crisis. And now? Last month, as the lockdowns were beginning, Smoot produced a six-minute LinkedIn video addressed to small companies like those he had been working with, in small communities across the country. “You need this, we need this, I need this,” he said, about trying to connect small firms with others facing similar problems. (You will see this about three and a half minutes into the LinkedIn clip.)

    We all have more to give …. When a good chunk of our country is isolated in their homes, more isolated than they were before, we have a choice. We can become worse, or we can become better. We can become less, or we can become greater.

    Choose to become greater. Choose to become more.

    Again, in isolation it could sound just like a motivational speech, but it’s connected to the “left behind America” work that Smoot and his organization have been doing for years.

    When I asked Smoot how his emphasis had shifted, he said it was primarily on the physical, mental, and emotional health of people in his extended community, and the creation of locally based, self-sustaining networks, rather than sending online “content” from headquarters. As he put it in an email:

    It’s very important to note, we are creating “Local Digital Interactive Communities,” not streaming pre recorded content or creating communities of non local people. VERY important.

    These types of communities are made up of 100’s of local experiences per month that feature local faces facilitating experiences that add value to three crucial areas for stability and recovery; economic, mental, and physical health. Through community, these focuses help you become the kind of person who can go get the future you want.

    He went on to explain how this approach differed from simple Zoom-meeting connectedness, including “large and small group experiences to avoid hiding online” and a series of regular accountability and goal-setting stages.

    “Stand tall today,” Smoot says in the introduction to his LinkedIn video. “Shoulders back, chin up … Together, as a big community, we choose to build a tomorrow we want, through community today.”

    As I ask at the end of each of these updates: Is an approach like this “the” answer to the current public health and economic crisis? Of course not. And I am sure that the IC model has limitations and weak points as well as strengths.

    But is it part of “an” answer? Yes, I believe it can be, as well as an example of the creativity with which Americans across the country are responding to our emergency. The history of these times should include the people and organizations that are trying to solve the moment’s problems, as well as the institutions that have failed.

    Next up: the latest news from Bitwise.

    More from this series

  • 2020 Time Capsule #16: Disinfectant

    Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23.
    Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23. Associated Press

    On the day when the Access Hollywood tape came out, one month before the 2016 election, I wrote a “Trump Time Capsule” item whose first paragraph, in its entirety, was:

    “Good God.”

    That tape, of course, was the one on which a vintage-2005 Donald Trump was recorded, in his always-recognizable voice, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Leading up, of course, to “Grab ‘em by the pussy, you can do anything.” Then, as captured on tape, Trump swallowed some Tic Tacs, stepped off a bus, and smilingly greeted and embraced the female TV host he had been ogling and talking about while aboard the bus.

    “Good God,” because personal crudeness of this scale was far beyond revelations that had stopped pre-Trump political campaigns. Edmund Muskie early in 1972, Thomas Eagleton later in 1972, Gary Hart in 1988, Howard Dean in 2004—I won’t go into details, but by the standard of “Grab ’em by ...” these previous political storms would qualify as minor showers. (Actually, I encourage you to look into the possibility that the “embarrassments” that stopped Gary Hart’s campaign in 1988 could have been the result of a political setup, as I wrote in 2018.)

    But of course Trump’s campaign was not derailed, by this or anything else. Recall what happened next:

    • Trump initially dismissed the comments as “locker room talk.”
    • The next day he released a video in which he said, for one of the few times ever, that he “regretted” his remarks on tape. He read the following while looking straight at the camera: “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am [sic]. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
    • On the same afternoon that The Washington Post broke news of the recording, WikiLeaks began releasing hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. (A witness for the Mueller report later said that Trump’s advisor Roger Stone coordinated this timing with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Stone denied being involved but last year was found guilty and sentenced to prison for lying about the case.) As was apparently intended, this immediately competed with the “grab ‘em” story for news coverage.
    • Some elected GOP officials criticized Trump—including, amazingly, his running mate Mike Pence, and then-Senator John McCain, who called on Trump to drop out.
    • But within a week, most Republicans were aboard again, and for Trump, a potentially campaign-ending event became just another bump in the road. His party, and his voters, would stick with him.

    What’s the connection to current events? These past few days have been another “Good God” moment, even by the standards of the past few years.

    At his multi-hour rally/”briefing” on Thursday evening, Trump speculated that heavy external (or internal) exposure to ultraviolet light, or perhaps drinking or injecting disinfectants, could be a solution to the virus.

    Because Trump later falsely claimed that he had been quoted out of context, or had just been joking, it’s important to observe what he looked and sounded like when saying these (preposterous) things. Starting at time 26:00 of this C-SPAN video, you can see that he was in dead earnest—and acting as if he was offering a great insight, which had escaped the detail-minded professionals—when he said the following words:

    Here’s a question that some of you [the press] are probably thinking of, if you’re totally into that world [of science], which I find to be very interesting.

    Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light … Supposing you brought the light inside the body [sic], either through the skin or some other way.

    And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.

    While Trump was saying these words, one of his scientific advisers, Dr. Deborah Birx, was captured on film as her face went ashen at the idiocy of his comments. But she was then called to the microphone, and as she has done several times before, she pointedly avoided saying that Trump’s comments were not just ignorant but actively dangerous, especially if anyone was considering drinking disinfectant. As noted earlier, her medical colleague Anthony Fauci has continued to pull off the remarkable (and public-spirited) trick of maintaining his long-earned reputation for honesty, while retaining a position in Trump’s retinue. Fauci is unique in that status. Everyone else who has entered Trump’s service has fallen into the pit of reputational destruction.

    The next day, Trump claimed that he was being “sarcastic” and only joking with the comments. This is his standard last line of defense when caught in a particularly egregious statement. For instance, he says his public call on “Russia” to release Hillary Clinton’s emails had just been a joke. That excuse was a lie, and anyone who saw the “disinfectant” video knows he is lying about this now.

    Almost immediately, the manufacturers of Lysol and other disinfectants, along with numerous public health agencies, put out statements warning against drinking these products. Reporters from the Washington Post quoted Dara Kass, of Columbia University Medical Center, on the difference between this and Trump’s previous, now-discredited advice that people start taking a certain kind of pill:

       “The difference between this and the chloroquine [pills] is that somebody could go right away to their pantry and start swallowing bleach. They could go to their medicine cabinet and swallow isopropyl alcohol,” Kass said. “A lot of people have that in their homes. There’s an immediate opportunity to react.”

    Kass explained to the Post that people who ingest such chemicals often die, and those “who survive usually end up with feeding tubes because their mouth and esophagus were eroded by the cleaning agents.”

    “It’s horrific,” she said.”


    And of the 53 Republicans who make up Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority? How many have spoken up to criticize the president—on the specifics of this new “plan,” or on what the comments reveal about his approach to reality in general—or to warn the public against his advice?

    As best I can determine, two days after Trump’s comments, that number is zero. This is the Vichy Republican bargain they made after the Access Hollywood tapes. It is the bargain that keeps an obviously unwell man in power now. It is the bargain for which they should be remembered.

  • From Military Service to Civilian Leadership

    People seated at tables watch speakers at a NationSwell event on "Racial Reconciliation and Justice"
    Courtesy of NationSwell

    Here’s another installment in the chronicle of people who are trying to take up the slack, while the national government flails rather than coping with a pandemic.

    Previously in this series: innovations from libraries; changes in a statewide program in California; and responses from a nationwide nonprofit network. (To update the California report: This week the state launched an expanded “Californians for All” campaign to enlist people of all ages in pandemic-era service projects. You can read about the new project here, or watch a brief video narrated by the unmatchable Peter Coyote, here. I will always be a California patriot, even though I don’t live there any more, but I think this video strikes a note people anywhere can respond to.)  

    Now, NationSwell.

    How it started: Greg Behrman, who is now in his early 40s, was born in the U.S. a few years after his parents emigrated from South Africa. He had what we might now describe as a “Mayor Pete”-like sequence of precocious achievements and successes. After Scarsdale High School, he went to Princeton, and after graduating in 1998 he spent two years as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Then—and I am summarizing!—he went to Oxford for a master’s degree; wrote two well-received books for Simon and Schuster, one about the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and the other about the history of the Marshall Plan; became a fellow at the Carr Center on Human Rights at Harvard; and worked on the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department in the first two years of the Obama Administration. Meanwhile, he had joined the Navy Reserves. In 2011, in his mid-30s, he spent a year in Afghanistan as a military staff assistant at ISAF—the International Security Assistance Force, during the times when generals David Petraeus and John Allen were in command.

    This background is relevant both because Behrman seems to have a sense of humor about its nonstop-achievement plot line, and because he says that his years in the government and in uniform, and the year he spent in Afghanistan, shaped his idea of what he wanted to do next in his life. His choices were also affected, he told me, by awareness that his own father, a financier, had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 51, and “you only have so much time to make a contribution.” (I remembered that the first time I interviewed Bill Clinton, who was then in his early 30s as the “boy governor” of Arkansas, he mentioned his awareness that men in his family did not live very long, so he was always conscious of how fast the clock was running. More here.)

    “During that year on deployment, I had a powerful experience, being part of a mission-driven team of very impressive people, who were all trying to do the right thing,” Behrman told me. That may sound formulaic, but I have heard similar sentiments from many people of Behrman’s generation about their military service—which despite its tragic and comic and frustrating and pointless elements, was based on the idea that people served. As noted earlier, this was part of Josh Fryday’s explanation of how he came to lead the California Volunteers project. As Behrman put it, “national service had become my core passion, and I thought I would like to be part of a mission-driven team whose mission was making our country better.”

    When he came back from deployment, Behrman said, “I was struck by the dissonance, of how we are barraged by the negativity, and all the screaming and naysaying that made people cynical and disengaged and angry.” He said that he thought there was an opportunity to “shift the lens away from the negativity and anger, and toward pragmatic problem-solving, and that we could create a platform to accelerate that process.”

    The idea that virtues displayed in mankind’s most destructive activity—combat—could somehow be channeled into its peacetime pursuits is timeless. It runs through the works of Homer and Shakespeare, Hamilton and Lincoln, and that most-central essay in American public life, William James’s 1910 masterpiece, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” I have heard many of Behrman’s contemporaries say that the experience of serving in uniform attracted them to the idea of service more general. In Behrman’s case, it was the origin story of NationSwell, which he started in 2013.

    What it does: This new organization is a business rather than a non-profit or charity. NationSwell is chartered as a “B Corporation”—a business structure in which the ultimate goal is not maximizing shareholder value but instead using market and profit incentives toward social, civic, and environmental goals. (The B Corporation outlook is described here.)

    In practice this has meant several different lines of work for NationSwell. Early on it began producing and publicizing stories in its “Moving America Forward” series, about people and organizations that were making progress on the local or statewide level. It has a NationSwell studio, which consults on and develops campaigns for companies and organizations. And its NationSwell Council is a membership-fee organization of successful, upper-tier people who are looking for a way to be involved in civic efforts in their region or beyond. What they pay NationSwell for is organizing events, making connections, and structuring projects in which members can feel they are doing something worthwhile.

    The vision for the Council’s benefits is a free-form counterpart to the FUSE Corps model I discussed previously. FUSE dispatches mid-career professionals or executives for structured one- or two-year projects in local governments. NationSwell matches its members with individuals, organizations, or communities on a fluid, case-by-case basis.

    You can get an idea of the range of their projects from the main NationSwell site. Behrman ran through a long list with me, but this is a typical example: One council member who had been a very successful serial-entrepreneur started work with a job-training organization in a low-income community in California. “The model they developed required that once people from the community get new jobs, they come back to the community and coach the next cohort,” Behrman says. The benefit, he said, was not only the training and job-placement itself, but also increasing “the social capital that people from advantaged parts of the country take for granted, the idea that you’ll have a network of support to draw from.”

    Berhman said that there are about 1,000 of the Council members, at nine hubs around the country. “We have been extremely careful in intentionally building the connective tissues and sinews of a tight-knit and high-functioning community,” he said. His members are senior-level business executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, venture capital and private equity investors, public or NGO officials, and educators.

    “In the early days, we spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘Who is the ecosystem for’?” he said. “Is this the place financial investors meet social sector leaders? Is it for the leaders in their late 30s and 40s, who share a generational orientation and sensibility?" He said he came to embrace the idea that it would be a wide and shifting variety of people. “The dynamic young activist. The journalist from [a major newspaper]. The start-up founder. A mayor. The financial or business executive looking to be of service. We realized there was strength in that diversity.” I have been to several NationSwell meetings, and after each I’ve come away with a list of names, contacts, and projects reflecting the range of backgrounds and skills that Behrman described.

    Why people serve: In a previous dispatch, I mentioned that my wife Deb’s parents, Frank and Angie Zerad, whose own parents had arrived in Chicago as Czech immigrants, spent their early career running a “normal” small business in the Midwest. Then life changed, and they found new fulfillment through nearly two decades as volunteer business advisers in Asia and Africa, with the International Executive Service Corps.

    Again I thought of that parallel when Greg Behrman said that many of his members had day-jobs as financiers or in big corporations but, in his view, were looking to make a mark in other ways.

    “There is a lot of force behind the fraying of America now,” he said. “But at the same time, I think there is a profound thirst to be part of the knitting of America. While we need to be clear-eyed about the forces in the other direction, I have observed the power and meaning that people derive from human connections, from community, from being of service.”  While many people had the latent impulse to connect, he said, many had lost the habit, or didn’t know in practical terms what to do next. That organizational structure is what he hoped his members could help provide.

    What is happening now: Like most businesses and nearly all civic organization, NationSwell is simultaneously trying to figure out how to keep itself going, and how to adapt its operations to the crisis of the times.

    Behrman gave examples of pandemic-driven adjustments. Most of them reflected its logic that, in times of stress, connections are all the more valuable: Connections between those who need help, and those willing to provide it. Or connections between those grappling with a problem in one part of the country, and those who have already made progress against the same problem else. Behrman’s examples, in an email, included:

    • “We’re helping to give [members] exposure to best practices and approaches, so they can be as impactful as possible. For example, one leading philanthropy decided to make all of its grants unrestricted during this time after hearing about that practice from another leader; one leading company decided to put in place a policy of matching individual employee charitable contributions … after hearing about that action from another leader.”
    • “We’re helping to broker new and sometimes unlikely partnerships, breaking down silos and barriers. For example, we connected one company with the C-19 Coalition, so they could donate 35,000 face masks to the health facility that most needed them; we exposed a prominent philanthropy to The National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices … leading to a $150K contribution; we connected one investment firm with City Harvest, and employees have donated $50K and growing; we connected two companies who would be unlikely bedfellows ... one that is converting some of its manufacturing capacity to produce hand-sanitizer, but lacked plastic bottles, with another company who currently has a surplus of plastic bottles due to lower demand on that product ...”
    • “We see the leaders who are participating … [and who] learn, explore, co-envision and pressure test together. I think this knitting together and the access and exposure, visibility, orientation and confidence that comes from operating as part of a larger community is also meaningful.”

    Are these efforts or other NationSwell projects “the” answer to America’s problems? Of course not. Have all of these projects panned out as hoped? Since I can’t get out to see anything these days, I haven’t been able to go see for myself.

    But here we have another illustration of organizations trying to be part of an answer for America, and of the resilient capacity of citizens in the absence of national leadership.

    More from this series

  • A Different Kind of Civil-Service Organization

    Two former FUSE fellows talk while looking at papers; the woman on the left holds the paper and shows it to the man on the right
    Aminata Brown, who is now Chief Innovation Officer at the New Orleans Police Department, and Sean Doss, now Executive Advisor to the Los Angeles Housing & Community Investment Department, both of whom served two years in those agencies as FUSE Executive Fellows Courtesy of James Weinberg

    The U.S. national government is failing in its response to the pandemic. One recent example: A month ago, on March 20, the United States and South Korea had about the same number of coronavirus deaths: nearly 100 in South Korea, versus somewhere over 200 in the U.S. Since South Korea has a much smaller population—about 50 million, versus more than 300 million for the U.S.—its per capita death rate was actually much higher. One month later, South Korea’s death total had risen to only 236—while that in the U.S. was rising quickly past 40,000. With adjustments for population size, the current U.S. death rate is more than 25 times higher than South Korea’s.

    Out of necessity, the rest of the nation is trying to take up the slack. Governors, mayors, nurses and doctors, hospital administrators, teachers and students, business owners and employees, civil servants and trash collectors and bus drivers and delivery people and grocery workers—these and tens of millions of others have taken the operations of America onto their shoulders.

    Of course, in the long run there is no substitute for national-level and international responses to a crisis of this magnitude. A recent New York Times editorial, “The America We Need,” did an admirable job of connecting the national challenges of the 2020s to other convulsive transformations in American life. More thought, planning, and proposals in this vein are appearing every day.

    But right at this moment, most of what’s positive in the country is happening at the local, statewide, and regional level—rather than that of national guidance or coordination. Not as a substitute for national policy, but as a guide and spur for it, these efforts deserve attention. Recently, Deb Fallows wrote about how libraries are expanding their virtual reach, now that their physical spaces are closed down. And I described how the most populous state, California, is trying to reorient its citizen-service program, for the era when people cannot easily gather in groups.

    Today’s update is the first of three about small-to-medium-size organizations, all relatively new, which are rapidly adapting to match the emergencies of this moment. Each of them had developed a system of networked projects across the country. Each emphasized the idea that Americans of different generations and backgrounds were looking for more than strictly material rewards and could be drawn to opportunities to serve. Each was based on innovative ways of matching business operations with efforts from governments and nonprofit groups. Each has now had to shift its emphasis during the pandemic. They are FUSE Corps, NationSwell, and the Innovation Collective. We start today with FUSE.

  • The Meaning of Today’s Political ‘Street Theater’

    Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty

    On Saturday (yesterday, as I write) I mentioned Donald Trump’s tweets implicitly cheering the protestors trying to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia by resisting stay-at-home orders from those states’ governors.

    Mike Lofgren, a former longtime aide to Republican legislators and now the author of The Party is Over and The Deep State, writes in to say that the situation is more serious, and more disturbing, than I indicated. I have learned enough from Lofgren over the years to think it worth sharing his views. In his note, he alludes to the background of protests by the Tea Party movement soon after Barack Obama took office—and the “Brooks Brothers riot” of 2000. He has details on all these developments in his books. For those not around at the time, more context on the Brooks Brothers riot—designed to affect the recount of votes in Florida, during the Bush-versus-Gore presidential race—is available here.

    And for the record, today Mike Pence offered an explanation for Trump’s “LIBERATE” tweets that differs from the one Lofgren presents, below. Pence said that, far from inciting resistance, the tweets were intended to encourage governors to “safely and responsibly” reopen their states. Read the two interpretations, and judge which sounds more plausible to you.

    Lofgren writes:

    Unfortunately, you didn’t emphasize the crucial point of this whole street theater.

    In the standard prestige media presentation, the “spontaneous” protestors against COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan and elsewhere are presented thus: those salt-of-the-earth working folk, battered by economic hardship, who want their jobs back. However misguided, their motives generally aren’t questioned.

    Wrong.

    1. Who could have imagined that they [included] neo-Confederates, NRA extremists, anti-vaxxer lunatics, and other fringe types [and that their organizers included groups that have been] funded in part by the Koch brothers and a Trump cabinet member, Betsy DeVos? Why does it take a British newspaper to make that clear?
    1. The all-too-convenient disturbances overwhelmingly resemble the totally-not-connected-to-the-GOP Tea Party demonstrations that “spontaneously” irrupted in 2009 to stymie Obamacare, with the death panels and so forth. That particular street theater was ignited by CNBC ranter Rick Santelli and largely financed by the Koch brothers. [JF note: more background on Rick Santelli’s role in the Tea Party era available here.]
    1. Street theater was pioneered by of the New Left in the 1960s, but since the Brooks Brothers riot of November 2000 it has become a mainstay of Astroturfed movements inspired by the GOP and funded by corporate moguls.
    1. Trump’s encouragement of the demonstrators is even more bizarre than commonly depicted. Past examples (Lincoln, Ike in Little Rock, Kennedy in Mississippi, etc.) represented the national head of government reining in states seeking to illegally secede or deny U.S. constitutional rights to citizens. This is a unique case: the head of the national government egging on residents of the states to illegally impede their state governors from carrying out their lawful, necessary, and proper functions to maintain public safety in a health emergency. So much for “federalism” under the GOP.
    ...
    1. Republican street theater, maybe even (or perhaps especially) when it threatens public safety or human decency, seems always to act like catnip to the mainstream media, who invariably trot out the well-worn tropes of “economic anxiety.” The U.S. media have done an execrable job on this one.
  • 2020 Time Capsule #15: ‘Liberate’

    Protesters in Michigan Jeff Kowalsky /AFP / Getty

    On Friday, April 17—yesterday, as I write—Donald Trump sent out three tweets that were unusual even for him. They followed angry protests by groups objecting to the shut-down orders in several states; news photos showed many of the protesters wearing Trump hats, many carrying weapons, and some with Confederate flags.

    Why is this spate of tweeting notable?

    1. As so often with Trump, because of its mere existence. Of course there have been clashes between federal and state policies through U.S. history. In post-World War II America, the clearest cases are from the Civil Rights era. For instance, in 1957, Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops from the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to overcome resistance to school-integration orders, led by the governor, Orval Faubus. In the 1960s, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson directed federal efforts to enforce civil-rights orders in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.

      But these were efforts to bring local practice into accord with nationwide policy. Trump was doing the reverse: implicitly encouraging local resistance to the very strategies his administration is recommending for the country as a whole. Nothing like this has happened since at least the time of Reconstruction, and probably not since before the Civil War.

    2. Because of its partisanship in a time of national emergency. One state that moved even earlier toward shutdowns than Michigan, Minnesota, or Virginia was Ohio. And in Ohio as in the other three states, there were angry “open things up!” protests at the state capital this week. But the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, is a Republican, while the governors of the other three states are all Democrats. (Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, and Ralph Northam in Virginia. Also, all six U.S. Senators from these states are Democrats.)

      So at a time when his own White House task force has been trying to work with governors of both parties, Trump was notably singling out “opposition” governors. Also, as reported in The New York Times and The Guardian, many of the protests were planned and financed by partisan conservative organizations.  

    3. Because of its crudeness and incoherence. As for crudeness: An invocation to “your great 2nd Amendment” being “under siege” is not subtle enough to qualify as a dog whistle. Chris Murphy, a U.S. Senator from Connecticut (and a Democrat), spelled it out:
      Twitter
      And, incoherence: The entire premise of the administration’s “mitigation” strategy is to encourage people not to congregate, so as to reduce the ultimate death toll from the pandemic. The head of that administration was cheering on those defying the strategy.
        
    4. Because of the sharpness of the reaction. A few hours before the statement from Chris Murphy, above, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, gave an extended, mocking retort to Trump at his daily briefing yesterday. You can see it on this C-SPAN video, starting at around time 1:05. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Cuomo said, recounting how often Trump had asked governors for their support. “Thank you for doing your job.” And he was just getting started, as you can see.

      Through these past weeks of pandemic crisis, Cuomo and other governors have been notably collegial and respectful toward Trump and his administration in their public presentations. Like other leaders during other crises, they set aside, for the time being, their personal and partisan differences. But yesterday it was No More Mister Nice Guy from Cuomo.

    All this during the week when total U.S. deaths from the coronavirus crossed the 35,000 line, and, for the first time in U.S. history, every state in the nation was officially subject to a federal “major disaster” declaration.  

  • 2020 Time Capsule #14: ‘The Authority Is Total’

    Leah Millis / Reuters

    In a rally-briefing lasting more than two hours this past Monday afternoon, Donald Trump issued a royalist view of executive power not once but several times. (Which is of course his tendency, with any point he wants to make.) You can see one of the clearest instances in this C-SPAN video starting around time 46:40. Trump is asked what he would do if he decided to “open up” the economy, but state governors didn’t agree. What would be his authority in that case?

    “When you say my authority — it’s the president’s authority. It’s not me.

    “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”

    Several things were remarkable about this statement.

    • One is its mere existence—regardless of the elaborate checks-and-balances built into the Constitution, regardless of the 10th Amendment’s limits on central-government powers vis-a-vis the states’, regardless of … anything.
    • Another was the reaction of the “strict Constructionists,” “institutionalists,” libertarians, and classic conservatives who make up the GOP majority in the Senate. Rather, the absence of reaction. Of the 53 senators in that group, the number who made a public objection to a claim of absolute presidential power was …. zero, as best I could tell. Would you like an illustration of how timid this group is? Even Fox News figures dared challenge Trump’s statement on-air. (More on the silence of the Republican lambs, here, and from Charlie Sykes, a longtime Republican who is now a leading critic of Trump, here.) Governors from both parties objected, as did Democratic legislators. If only the Constitution could talk.
    • And one more was Trump’s backing off from this claim 24 hours later, when he said he would “authorize” each of the states to adjust plans as they see fit. This of course was a face-saving fiction. None of the governors had required Trump's “authorization” when they issued their stay-at-home orders, starting with early moves by Mike DeWine in Ohio, a Republican, and Gavin Newsom in California, a Democrat. None would need Trump’s okay to lift, alter, or extend their states’ plans.

    I note this claim for the long-term record: An American president asserted his absolute executive authority, from a White House podium, with virtually no resistance from America’s “conservative” party.