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.
James Fallows is based in Washington, D.C., as a staff writer at The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for more than 40 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Shanghai, Beijing, and London. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a Fellow of the American Geographical Society. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot.
Fallows won the National Magazine Award for his 2002 story “Iraq: The Fifty-First State?” warning about the consequences of invading Iraq; he has been a finalist four other times. He has also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book National Defense and an N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America foundation. His books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. Before Our Towns, his most recent book was China Airborne (2012). He is married to Deborah Fallows, the author of the book Dreaming in Chinese. Together from 2013 to 2017 they traveled across the United States for their American Futures project, which led to Our Towns. They have two married sons and five grandchildren.
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The renowned filmmaker Ken Burns has a new project called UNUM, about the sources of connection rather than separation in American life.
His latest segment involves “Communication” in all its aspects, and it combines historical footage with current commentary. Some of the modern commenters are Yamiche Alcindor, Jane Mayer, Megan Twohey, Kara Swisher, and Will Sommer. You can see their clips here.
One more of these segments covers the revolution in political communication wrought by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “fireside chats.” It was drawn from Burns’s earlier documentary Empire of the Air, which was narrated by Jason Robards. You can see a clip from that documentary here.
As part of the UNUM series of contemporary response to historical footage, Burns’s team asked me to respond to the FDR segment. (Why me? In 1977—which was 44 years after FDR’s first fireside chat, and 44 years ago, as of now—the newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter gave his first fireside chat, which I helped write. It’s fascinating to watch, as a historical artifact; you can see the C-SPAN footage here.)
This is what I thought about FDR’s language, and how it connects to the spirit of our moment in political time:
For reference, here is the text version of what I said in the Burns video, about those FDR talks, as previously noted here:
The most important words in Franklin Roosevelt’s initial fireside chat, during the depths of Depression and banking crisis in 1933, were the two very first words after he was introduced.
They were: My friends.
Of course political leaders had used those words for centuries. But American presidents had been accustomed to formal rhetoric, from a rostrum, to a crowd, stentorian or shouted in the days before amplification. They were addressing the public as a group—not families, or individuals, in their kitchens or living rooms: My friends. A few previous presidents had dared broadcast over the radio—Harding, Coolidge, Hoover. But none of them had dared imagine the intimacy of this tone—of trying to create a national family or neighborhood gathering, on a Sunday evening, to grapple with a shared problem.
Roosevelt’s next most important words came in the next sentence, when he said “I want to talk for a few minutes” with his friends across the country about the mechanics of modern banking. Discussing, explaining, describing, talking—those were his goals, not blaming or declaiming or pronouncing. What I find most remarkable in the tone that followed was a president talking up to a whole national audience, confident that even obscure details of finance could be grasped if clearly explained, rather than talking down, to polarize and oversimplify.
Consciously or unconsciously, nearly every presidential communication since that time has had FDR’s model in mind. In 1977 the newly inaugurated 39th president Jimmy Carter gave a fireside chat about the nation’s energy crisis, a speech that, as it happens, I helped write. Nearly every president has followed Roosevelt’s example of the basic three part structure of a leader’s speech at time of tragedy or crisis: First, expressing empathy for the pain and fear of the moment; second, expressing confidence about success and recovery in the long run; and third, offering a specific plan, for the necessary next steps.
Some of these presentations have been more effective, some less. But all are operating against the background, and toward the standard of connection, set by the 32nd president, Franklin Roosevelt, starting in 1933. “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan,” he said in that first fireside chant. “Let us unite in banishing fear.”
The opening words of that talk had been “My friends.” His closing words were, “Together we cannot fail.”
The theme connecting their presentations is one of the stalwarts in reports over the years at this site: Namely, the role of community colleges as linchpins of education and opportunity in the United States. For more on why community colleges are the institutions of this American moment, please see this dispatch from Michigan, or this from Ohio, or this with responses from Maine to Texas to California and beyond, or this thoughtful reply by Matt Reed for Inside Higher Ed. For now, my goal is to explain why a 93-second video clip, which you’ll find at the end of this post, deserves your attention.
(Here’s a rhetorical note from a one-time political speechwriter: Simpler is always better, when it comes to naming big new projects. Cautionary example: During the Obama era, the U.S. and five other countries reached an agreement with Iran. Nearly everyone, admirer or critic, refers to that agreement as “the Iran nuclear deal”; almost no one outside a bureaucracy calls it by its ungainly formal title, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA. By contrast, the matched set of three titles for this administration's main programs—American Rescue Plan, American Jobs Plan, American Families Plan—are marvels of concision. Each name is three words long; two of the three words are “American” and “Plan”; and the remaining words are “Families,” “Jobs,” and “Rescue.” Unless they had chosen “Motherhood” and “Apple Pie,” it would be hard to improve on this as a naming strategy. Students of Americana will also note the resonance with the famous three-word titles of many of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, from the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, to the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA.)
The idea and ambition of the new “American (Rescue/Jobs/Families) Plan” programs, as noted in this previous post, involve seizing this moment’s historic opportunity to address long-festering inequalities and failures. Will Americans look back, decades from now, at the sweep of these proposals as something comparable to the New Deal, in brightening prospects for the nation as a whole? Or will they see it as successful in more narrowly defined terms, like the race to space in the 1960s? Or will it be seen as another sad mismatch of intentions and effects? Obviously no one knows the answer now; less obviously but just as certainly, the answer is being determined week by week, through actions of citizens, businesses, and institutions across the country.
Joe Biden’s part of the community college saga came last week, in the Capitol, when as part of his lengthy address he proposed guaranteeing two free years of community college to all students. At Tidewater Community College this week, Dr. Jill Biden appeared in her capacity as a long-time English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, outside Washington—where, she said, she was known as “Dr. B.” She spoke before her husband did, and she made the case for community colleges as today’s expressions of an American ideal: of mobility for individuals, of security for families, of revitalization for towns and regions.
“Our schools accept everyone,” she said, “regardless of age or race or income, or family legacy.” If you watch her presentation (on C-SPAN video here), you’ll see her stressing these points, starting around time 3:00. “They offer classes that are flexible, so students don’t have to choose between work and school. They train for real-world jobs. They tailor to the community they serve.”
Obviously community colleges have their failures and shortcomings and scandals, as any institution does. But both of the Bidens emphasized the theme that has struck Deb and me in our travels: how important the community-college opportunity is, for how many people, at a time when so many other avenues of opportunity have been closed off.
America’s K-12 system is the bedrock of public education; its research universities, liberal arts colleges, and other four-year schools are crown jewels. But everyone already knows about the importance of those institutions—the public schools, the famous universities. Right now, in the political and economic straits of the 2020s, community colleges may most deserve extra attention and help.
You can hear both Bidens making the extended case, in the C-SPAN video from Tidewater. But if you’d like the TL;DR version of this argument, I most enthusiastically recommend spending the next 93 seconds of your life watching Raj Shaunak, of East Mississippi Community College, explain what his institution has meant to the people of his state.
Many of them, he says, are “one flat tire away from losing their job, or not finishing their education.” This is a clip from the HBO documentary “Our Towns,” and I think it will give you an idea of why we have become such proponents of strengthening these engines of American opportunity.
Coinciding with the film’s debut, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, interviewed the film’s creators—Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher of West City Films—and Deb Fallows and me about what it was like to turn print reporting into a movie, and how the resulting theme and message matched the realities of an America that has been coping with pandemic, division, and polarization.
I think the results were very interesting. You can see them here:
Near the end of the session, Jeff Goldberg made a point that rings true to me. He said that this was a film and message “for the 80 percent.” That is, for the substantial majority of Americans who believe in possibility, in practicality, in reasonable paths forward. I hope you’ll hear the interview—and watch the film.
This evening—April 13, at 9 p.m. ET—HBO will air its new documentary Our Towns. The film will be available for streaming on HBO Max, and you can see a brief trailer for it here.
Naturally my wife, Deb Fallows, and I have a special interest in this film. It is based on the book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, that Deb and I wrote, which was published three years ago. That book in turn grew out of a multiyear project of traveling around the country and reporting on smaller cities and rural areas, as part of The Atlantic’s “American Futures” series. We had many partners in this project and made many friends along the way, whose stories we told in the hundreds of online dispatches and several print-magazine stories we filed. We have stayed in touch with a large number of these people and communities, and we have continued to follow their successes, setbacks, and the lessons learned and taught since the time of our first visits.
Deb and I spent much of 2019 on the road with our HBO colleagues—the filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher, of West City Films, and their team—doing the reporting, interviewing, and 100 days of on-location filming work that went into the movie. Then, during the long year of lockdown, Jeanne and Steve, with their partners at HBO, edited and crafted the film in a process that distilled the countless hours of footage into 97 exquisite minutes on screen. (HBO’s longtime leader, Richard Plepler, was the original champion of this project, and the heads of HBO’s documentary division, Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham, guided it from early stages through release.)
Having presented our view of America strictly in words, Deb and I had no idea how these themes and impressions could be rendered mainly through images and scenes. As print-world people, we couldn’t have explained, or even imagined, what a film version of our journey might ideally look like. But once we saw the first edits we realized, it would look like this. The film exceeded our hopes and expectations for conveying the splendor (and also the scarring) of the American landscape; the passion, humor, and self-awareness (and sometimes self-delusion) of people wrestling with challenges for their communities and their country; and the achievements (and also disappointments) of an America that generally escapes the media’s attention.
So we hope you will watch the film, because we believe it is beautiful, inspiring, surprising, and surprisingly timely. In the months to come, as the weather warms and public life resumes, we hope there will be occasions to show clips from it in viewing sessions around the country, in cities we visited and many more like them.
But the other reason we hope you will watch the film is that we believe the message and spirit expressed in these 90-plus minutes on-screen are even more important in post-pandemic America than we could have foreseen when we began this work.
In short: This film tells the story of America through examples of renewal and recovery that had been on display through decades of the country’s history, and which we captured just before the traumas of the pandemic era set in. As the country begins moving toward the “after” stage of this historic dislocation, those same traits will, we believe, be the keys to successful rebuilding and reconciliation in the years ahead.
It is impossible to fully understand history as we are living through it. But everyone who has lived through, and in many cases been battered by, the turmoil of the past few years understands that these times—our times—will be studied and analyzed long after today’s Americans are gone, as one of the critical moments in the nation’s story.
The United States has endured the worst public-health crisis in living Americans’ memory; its schools and businesses have reeled from the impact, not to mention its families; and its political system has been abused and tested in ways not seen in half a century or more. This has been a dark time around the world, and in certain ways darker for the United States than for many other countries.
The question no one can answer in real time is whether this bad period will eventually be seen as a prelude to conditions that got even worse—or whether, as so many times before in the nation’s history, a time of crisis might shock the country in an era of long-overdue improvements and reforms. Will people a century from now look back on 2021 as a poignant last remnant of the “good old days”—a time before pandemics became even more frequent and uncontrollable, before economic opportunities and rewards became even more skewed, while democratic institutions still seemed repairable, while many of the Earth’s ecosystems might still be saved? Or will our times stand instead as shorthand for yet another of the country’s “bad old days” turning points, in which the country’s institutions and momentum hit bottom and then turned in a more hopeful direction?
No one can know that answer. But nearly everyone can influence what the answer turns out to be.
That is the fundamental idea behind the movie, and the book, and the ongoing efforts Deb and I hope to carry out: That we are all determining, today, what the country will look like tomorrow, and that most of us could use help in doing so. And—the additional idea—at a time when effective new ideas are at a premium, as is the very concept of optimistic possibility, many of the most promising new approaches are being hammered out not in national-level debates but state by state and city by city, town by town.
The importance of flexible, local-level innovation, and the fertile creativity of American society at all its levels, is one of the most familiar themes in American history. It is part of what Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon in the 1800s. It was the basis of Louis Brandeis’s famous remark, in a 1932 Supreme Court dissent, that localities and states, in their diversity, were the real “laboratories of democracy” for a complex nation. It is a theme that has run through dozens of Deb’s and my reports.
But we believe the concept of local-level experimentation is especially urgent now, because the climate is brightening for putting locally generated ideas into effect. Through several presidential administrations, for a generation or more, national-level politics in this United States has “failed” in its most important functional role. It has become mainly an arena for taking stands and thwarting opponents, rather than matching the still-enormous resources of this nation to its also-enormous problems. In recent times, the place where that matchup has been most likely to work has been not in federal government but at the local and sometimes statewide level. At their experimental and innovative best, local- and regional-level organizations have played a role (loosely) like monasteries in the Middle Ages, as reservoirs of a society’s possibility and learning.
Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the national prospects are changing. This is the result of a partisan event—Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, and his party’s narrow control of Congress—but it is not fundamentally a partisan phenomenon. How so? The rapid expansion of the interstate highway network in the 1950s, and of public-school science and language instruction in that same era, resulted from a partisan event—Dwight Eisenhower’s ascent to the presidency—but was more a national than a partisan phenomenon. The expansion of the Land Grant University system from the 1860s onward arose from Republican-sponsored legislation but was a cornerstone of a progressive, nationally minded vision.
In 2021, the resources that will soon be flowing to states, cities, and specific communities—for roads and bridges, for modern broadband connections and repairs on antique water pipes, for trains and airports, for health centers and food banks—result from one party’s support but soon will shape the whole nation’s prospects. And how they have that impact—whether we look back on this as a time of renewal, or sloppily missed opportunities—will turn largely on whether past lessons and discoveries of local innovation are successfully applied.
On the last page of the Our Towns book, which we wrote a few months after the presidential election of 2016, Deb and I argued that a moment like the current one could be foreseen. From the 1880s through the 1920s, states and localities had tried out a variety of economic, political, and civic-reform efforts largely ignored at the national level. But “when the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various ‘laboratories of democracy’ were at hand.” And in our times:
After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine.
HBO’s new movie makes this point in a more emotionally powerful way. Its final scene is of the artist Charles Jupiter Hamilton, known as Charly, whose works include a wonderful history-of-our-community mural on a building wall on the west side of Charleston, West Virginia.
When we came across Charly during our filming, he explained the background of the painting—as you’ll hear in the film. And then, unexpectedly, he pulled out a book of Shakespeare plays, and began reading a famous speech by Brutus, from Julius Caesar.
The passage goes:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat …
“I always felt this way,” Charly told us, as he put down the book. “This is a place where the tide is in. If you put your boats out, put your ventures out, right now, we can make something of ourselves.”
Coming where it does—in the film, in the drama of West Virginia, in the current history of the United States—the presentation has tremendous power. And it is our guiding principle. On such a full sea are we now afloat.
The country is full of “underdog cities”—communities and regions that are aware of losing out and having been overlooked. Some are in Appalachia, some in the Deep South, some around the Great Lakes, some in inland regions of otherwise-prospering states in the West. The imbalances in American opportunity—by race, by gender, by neighborhood and region, by class and economics—are of fundamental importance in the politics of the past generation, and in the prospects for renewal in the generation ahead.
Today’s installment is the story of how a company that started in one of these places is now involving people and businesses in another—and why that matters in the next stage of equitable American recovery.
The company is Bitwise Industries; its site-of-origin is Fresno, in California’s agriculturally rich (but otherwise poor) Central Valley; and its latest project will be in the once-strong, recently troubled American manufacturing belt along the Great Lakes. This week, Bitwise announced a new $50 million venture to expand a model that has proven effect in California to other “underdog” parts of the country, starting with the city of Toledo, Ohio.
The money has come from private investors—Kapor Capital, JPMorgan Chase, Motley Fool Ventures, and the Toledo-based health-care non-profit ProMedica. Its announced goal, according to Bitwise, is “to support the actions needed to stop the widening wealth gap, end institutional discrimination, and remove the barriers for accessing high-wage, high-growth jobs.” In practice this means creating technology-training centers, incubators for startup businesses, partnerships with schools and universities, and in some cases physical renovations of run-down buildings.
The funding is based on Bitwise’s track record of success in expanding opportunities for tech-related jobs in under-served communities in California. Its first project, in Toledo, will be opening a new training, incubator, coworking, and apprenticeship center in a historic downtown structure that for years has stood vacant and decaying.
For Bitwise, this venture is an application of what its leaders call the “Digital New Deal”—opening more of this era’s opportunities to those who have lacked them. For Toledo it is, as the mayor, Wade Kapszukiewicz, put it to me, “a sign that the city is moving in the right direction,” and that people within the city “whose economic futures have been uncertain, they’ll have a chance to be on a better path.”
As always, whether this will pay off is unknowable. But it is based on ideas and practices that in other parts of the country have so far proved their worth.
Now, a word about the participants, their backgrounds, and the idea.
Fresno and Bitwise: Fresno is the largest city in the Central Valley, whose farms, vineyards, groves, and orchards are acre-for-acre some of the most valuable farmland in the world. But despite the area’s phenomenal productivity, the people of the valley are on average very poor by national standards, and subject to the educational, social, and health handicaps that accompany poverty. By some calculations, if California ever carried out a scheme to divide itself into six states—which it won’t—the resulting new state of Central California would be the very poorest in the Union.
Over the past six years, starting here and here and running through this last year, Deb Fallows and I have frequently reported on economic, civic, and cultural comeback activities in Fresno and the vicinity. One important economic and cultural driver there has been Bitwise. This was a startup firm when we first wrote about it, which has expanded into a combination of software house, tech-training center, and overall civic connector that has played a significant role in the city’s attempts at revival. (We’ve written about similar efforts from smaller tech companies in, for instance, Erie, Pennsylvania.) Deb and I have been impressed enough by their work that we’ve become paying customers of Bitwise on some web-design projects.
The company’s cofounders, Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal, have been explicit in saying that their goal is to expand tech-economy opportunities for individuals, families, communities, and regions that the larger tech boom has left behind. “Bitwise is a tech ecosystem, activating human potential to elevate underdog cities around the country,” the company says on its web site. “My grandmother came here from Mexico, and my grandfather grew up very poor,” Soberal told me, when I spoke with him and Olguin on the phone this week. Olguin herself grew up in a Central Valley field-working family. The opportunity to go to college, and to start a business in the tech industry, dramatically changed her prospects. She has spoken many times about the countless others who thirst for such opportunities, in the technology business that had traditionally been closed to people from backgrounds like hers.
In 2019, Bitwise raised $27 million in “Series A” startup money, mainly to expand beyond Fresno to other “underdog” cities in California, like Bakersfield, Merced, and Oakland. With this $50 million in new “Series B” money, it intends to go national, toward other places with similar challenges—and potential. “The spread of COVID-19 and events of 2020 exposed the deep flaws that have existed for decades in the United States, and laid bare the unsustainable nature of our current systems/policies, and how they trap people in a cycle of poverty,” Olguin said in a statement announcing the new funding. “The past year showed us that there is no time to waste and we need to be aggressive about driving change now.”
“We were really rolling in California, and began asking ourselves, if we were to expand further, where would we go next?” Jake Soberal told me. “We wanted to see where we could have maximum impact.” The answer turned out to be Toledo.
Toledo and ProMedica: What agriculture has been to Fresno’s economy, manufacturing has historically been to Toledo’s. This has especially been true for firms related to the auto industry in nearby Detroit, most notably in glass. Toledo’s nickname is “Glass City,” and it is still the headquarters of Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning, Libbey, and other major glass makers.
But the city’s biggest employer is now a health-care organization—something that Deb and I found to be true in a strikingly large number of places. For Toledo, that organization is ProMedica, which operates hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices in the area, and senior-care centers in 26 states.
ProMedica is organized as a non-profit, and describes itself as a “health and well-being organization” with a commitment to reviving its local community. Its CEO, Randy Oostra, told me this week that “when you look at health outcomes, it’s 20 percent clinical care, 40 percent social determinants” (and the rest is other things). That is, to foster healthy patients, you need healthy communities.
“An emphasis on social determinants is in our DNA,” he said. “We see our mission as actively looking to improve people’s lives—which include people’s ability to learn, to get a job, to support healthy families.” He said that ProMedica also considered itself an “anchor institution” for the revival of Toledo as a whole. In 2017 it moved its headquarters to the downtown waterfront, where as part of a $60 million construction project it had renovated a huge old steam-power plant. In 2019 it contracted to buy from the city’s school board the huge, once-magnificent downtown structure that had been built in 1911 as the Main Post Office and, after a variety of incarnations, had fallen into disuse.
At a virtual conference last summer, Robin Whitney, ProMedica’s chief of strategic planning, heard Irma Olguin talk about Bitwise’s record in Fresno and its desire to bring its model to other cities. As it happened, Olguin had a connection to the city. After finishing high school in the Central Valley, she had got her computer-science degree in the early 2000s at the University of Toledo. Whitney got in touch and said, what about Toledo?
“They more we talked, the more we realized we were kindred spirits,” Robin Whitney told me. “The passion they had, the idea that you have to give more people a real opportunity, it was a match.”
“My having an understanding of that area was helpful,” Olguin told me, when I asked: Why Toledo? “When I was first there, I was young and inexperienced and didn’t have the experience of starting a company under my belt. But the conversations we have now, and the absolute thirst to uplift the city, make a lot more sense. Too many people feel they have been left out, and need a chance.”
“What people feel about Fresno, or Bakersfield, they feel about Toledo,” Jake Soberal said. “The underdog nature, the willingness to work together.” “Working together,” which sounds like a platitude, has been an important part of the Bitwise model: partnerships among city and state governments, universities, community groups and NGOs, and companies large and small, with a local focus. They felt that they found that level of connection in Toledo.
“I know it’s a cliche to say ‘win-win,’ but I think that’s what this project is, for all involved,” Mayor Kapszukiewicz, a Democrat first elected in 2017, told me about the project. “Whether or not you buy into the notion that everything between the East Coast and the West Coast is ‘flyover country,’”—and by the way, I don’t—“in the economy there are winners and losers. In this region, we have done a lot of losing over the last 70 or 80 years.”
In the long run, he said, cities along the Great Lakes might be enviously referred to as “the Water Belt”—rather than the Rust Belt or the Snow Belt—because “we are sitting on one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water.” With a warming climate, their location could become a strategic plus. But in recent memory, factories had still been closing, and populations falling.
“There are communities and individuals our economy has overlooked,” he said. “People whose economic future is uncertain, they can be put on a path to better themselves and their families, with marketable skills that have real value.” As the mayor himself admitted, any sentiments of this sort sound platitudinous. But the problem he’s describing is very obviously real. And the elements of the response—businesses with an intentional civic focus, partnerships among a variety of groups, guiding focus on inclusion—have proven their value in communities with problems more acute than Toledo’s.
“I don’t know what people on ‘the coasts’ might say about towns like Toledo,” the mayor remarked, when I told him I was calling from my house in Washington. “We’re not New York City, and we don’t want to be New York City. You can get anywhere you want, in 12 minutes. If you pay $200,000 for a house, you can get 3,000 square feet.”
He stopped himself, and laughed—“Yes, this sounds like a mayor being a booster. But I think it’s the case for Toledo, and a lot of towns like this, that we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We get the sense that people might be snickering at us. And we make that an advantage, in the civic zeitgeist. It’s a nice town, we get along, and if someone ‘in the family’ gets picked on, everyone stands up for them.”
The chip on the shoulder, very much the spirit of Fresno—or Erie, or Dayton, or San Bernardino, or many other places we have written about—is part of what the Bitwise founders recognized, and welcomed.
“Toledo has been knocked down and punched in the gut several time,” the mayor said. “But I will say that if there is anything about being knocked down, it’s that you know how to get up. Toledo is a resilient place. We know how to take a punch. Toledo is a place that never gives up.”
The Jefferson Center: “The property they’re using is an interesting representative of Toledo as a whole,” Nolan Rosenkrans, of the Toledo Blade, told me on the phone this week. He was talking about the vintage-1911 Main Post Office, recently known as the Jefferson Center, which will be the Bitwise/ProMedica site.
“It’s right next to the Toledo Club, another stately historic structure, which is a center of wealth. And on the other side is a homeless shelter and community kitchen. In between is this huge block-long center that’s just empty now, and which is not the easiest kind of structure to redevelop.” He said that he thought most people would be glad the building would survive.
As for the larger success of the project, people in Toledo and elsewhere will have to wait and see. But Bitwise intends this as the first of a series of projects for underdog cities in the Midwest and elsewhere. They will represent important new venues for the drama of whether the American economy can open more possibilities to more of its people.
A few days ago, I was talking with the mayor of a medium-sized “red state” city about how his community was weathering today’s public-health and financial crises. I told him I was mainly curious about his observations, rather than looking for on-the-record quotes. We talked over some details about his town, and then I asked him about prospects for post-pandemic recovery, in the broadest sense: restoring lost jobs, reviving lost businesses, regaining economic momentum, recreating opportunities for people and communities that have been left out. How did the upcoming wave of national and global trends look, from his perspective a long distance from Washington?
“When I got into politics,” he said, referring to the late 1980s and early 1990s, “it was the era of Jack Kemp for the Republicans, and Bill Clinton for the Democrats. Balance the budget, lean government, and so on.” Twenty-five years ago, in his 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton had memorably declared, “The era of big government is over.”
“All of those things were important, of course,” the mayor said. “But unless I’m misreading things, people now are really ready for a different approach.” That different approach, he said, would be more growth-minded, less constrained by fear of deficits. More Keynes and New Deal, less balanced-budget amendment.
These are not radically novel views to express in early 2021. An excellent, long New York Times Magazine story by Noam Scheiber recently went into this shift, as do frequent reports in The Atlantic and practically every other publication. Personally I’m all in favor of the change, toward a Keynesian/New-New Deal mentality—but my point for the moment is that this mayor volunteered it as the coming trend.
“I have a sense that we’re moving toward an environment where there’s broader support for public spending,” he said. “And that is exactly what cities need. In one word, infrastructure. Roads and bridges and sewers”—and, obviously, electric power systems. “They’re getting old, and they’re expensive to rebuild. My sense is not only that we need it, but that we’re in a political moment where it may be possible.”
That is the drama we’ll be seeing play out on the national stage, as the new administration at the national level either can or cannot enact its new policies. And we’ll see the real test of effectiveness, adaptability, and innovation played out as the policies are implemented city by city, region by region, and state by state.
That too would have resonance with the original New Deal, when the big, sweeping changes that were launched from Washington often drew from earlier experimentation at the local or state level—and took different effects as applied place-by-place. If national-level policy, in the Biden era, is now trying to support economic recovery and renewal of left-behind areas, ideas on how to do that, and the experimentations and implementations on getting it done, are largely going to occur at the local level. (In The Washington Monthly, Daniel Block has a new piece on how a federal renewal effort can best take advantage of the local ability to adapt and innovate.)
As a prelude to more chronicles of this national-local and rural-urban interaction, here are a few leads to reports, ideas, and developments worth note.
Reimagine Appalachia: This is one of the most interesting and ambitious regional-renewal developments now underway. The heart of the idea is to convert America’s stereotypically coal-dependent Ohio River Valley into a center of renewable energy and other forward-looking technologies. You can read an introduction to the project by Bill Lucia at the Route Fifty site here, and see the main site here. A summary of the Reimagine “blueprint” is available on PDF here, and the full blueprint is in a downloadable PDF here.
“Appalachians have a long history of hard work, resilience, and coming together to face enormous challenges,” the blueprint begins. “… Now is the time to put our ingenuity to use and imagine a 21st century economy that works for the people in the Ohio River Valley of Appalachia.” Among the specifics in its proposals, and of more obvious importance after the Texas electric-grid disaster, is a call to modernize the electric and broadband grid of the region, specifically with infrastructure projects involving union jobs:
The Rural Electrification Program, a New Deal innovation, brought electricity to rural areas in Appalachia and the South, where there was no market or financial incentive for private capital to invest ….
It is time for an upgrade: the Rural Grid Modernization Program. Policymakers must invest in a modern rural grid that brings efficient and affordable energy to industries and families. Like the Rural Electrification Program, this program will create tens of thousands of construction, maintenance and utility jobs. Unlike the Rural Electrification Program, this time policymakers must make sure the investment benefits all of us, no matter what we look like or where we live ...
We need a smarter grid, with more efficient and decentralized generation built by union labor, including utility-scale solar farms on remediated brownfields …. [And] High quality, affordable broadband is foundational for a prosperous 21st century Appalachia.
As this passage mentions, in the 1930s the Rural Electrification Administration genuinely transformed much of rural America, by bringing electric power to rural and impoverished places that had never had it before. The imprint was such that, when he was campaigning for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter could remind crowds in the South about the difference the REA had made in his own life, and many of theirs. (Carter spent his boyhood in a farmhouse in rural Georgia with no electric power.) Today’s electric grid needs modernization everywhere; the gap in rural and urban broadband coverage is a rough parallel to the rural-electrification inequalities that the New Deal set out to correct.
When Deb and I can travel again, we look forward to seeing and reporting on some of the Reimagine projects and sites.
“Why Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide Might Save Our Lives”: That is the title of an interview by Maddie Oatman, in Mother Jones, with Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cramer is the author of The Politics of Resentment, a book on the way that “rural consciousness” in Wisconsin paved the way first for Scott Walker as governor, and then for Donald Trump. She has a number of practical tips about reviving the New Deal/REA-type spirit of “we’re all in this together.” For instance:
What has worked for me has been to be with people on their own turf, and just stop talking as quickly as possible. And make it clear that you’re there, whether it’s virtually or in person, to listen and not to convince them of anything, not to persuade them to behave a certain way, but basically to say, ‘What are your concerns? What are your challenges? What is life like here?’ It’s so valuable in a lot of ways because it conveys respect.
As Deb and I have noted countless times in this space, the questions to ask definitely do not include: “What do you think about [Trump / Biden / Obama / Limbaugh / Fox News / the mainstream media]?” or any other instantly polarizing question. Ask one of those, and you’ll never hear anything enlightening. Ask “what is life like here,” and it’s like opening a novel.
Katherine Cramer also has advice on how public-health officials could get across word about the pandemic, masks, and vaccines:
I would send the most down-to-earth ambassadors to local talk radio programs. I would, I’m not kidding. Radio has a lot of power in rural America. A lot of times there’s no other local media. And a lot of these folks have jobs for which they can have radio on in the background the whole time. A lot of times these tractor cabs have satellite radio, all the bells and whistles for really good radio reception. Also they drive a lot, whether it’s to shop or, when school is in session, to get their kids to and from school.
These talk radio shows, they’re like little on-air communities where the callers seem to recognize each other, and the host recognizes the callers, and I think they’re really important sources of opinion leadership.
Relocation plans: This report from Uri Berliner of NPR, and this in the Wall Street Journal by Kerry Thompson, look at the ways in which smaller cities (plus some big ones, like Tulsa) are trying to attract residents who might otherwise head to Chicago or Atlanta—and how the dislocations wrought by the pandemic might change rural/urban patterns. Northwest Arkansas is investing more than $1 million in a program called Life Works Here, which offers a $10,000 cash incentive (and other bonuses) for people to move to the region
Resources and guides. Here’s a list of ones to consider:
“Reopen Main Street,” from the Michigan Main Street organization. This is a library of tips and guides for small businesses that are struggling to survive during the pandemic shutdowns and to recover afterwards.
“We’re Building a Vaccine Corps.” In an essay for The Conversation, Michael Collins, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, proposes another New Deal-inspired project. In essence this would enlist health-care professionals and students in an emergency effort to get Americans vaccinated. As Collins says:
“As new, potentially more dangerous variants of this coronavirus spread to new regions, widespread vaccination is one of the most powerful and effective ways to slow, if not stop, the virus’s spread.
“Mobilizing large “vaccine corps” could help to meet this urgent need.
“We’re testing that concept right now at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I am the chancellor. So far, 500 of our students and hundreds of community members have volunteered for vaccine corps roles. Our graduate nursing and medical students, under the direction of local public health leaders, have already been vaccinating first responders and vulnerable populations, demonstrating that a vaccine corps can be a force multiplier for resource-strained departments of public health.”
Going Home. Steve Grove grew up in Minnesota; went to college in California; worked on the East Coast and overseas (including as an intern at The Atlantic, when it was based in Boston); and then spent a decade at Google. He was head of News and Politics at YouTube, and ran the Google News Lab. Then in 2019 he went back to Minnesota to take what he calls “a government job,” as Commissioner of Employment and Economic Development for the state. Recently Grove wrote an essay for CNN called “I left Google for a government job. Why more people should do the same.” Very much worth reading.
Last week, at his home in Sunnyvale, California, a man named Michael T. Jones died of cancer, at age 60. This past weekend the local San Jose Mercury-News ran an appreciation of him and summary of his career, which you can read here. He is mourned by the many friends he made over the decades, of course most of all by his wife, June, with whom he recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
I considered Michael Jones a good friend, and someone with the too-rare combination of intellectual brilliance and temperamental big-heartedness. It was because of both factors—his virtuosity in the technological world, and his generosity on a personal level—that he was a leading figure in an Atlantic article I wrote ten years ago, called “Hacked.” The article described what happened after the email account and related electronic identities of my wife, Deb, were taken over by a hacker.
Remember those phony emails you used to get, from what appeared to be a friend’s account? “I regret to inform you that I have been mugged in Manila. Please wire me $10,000 immediately, and include your banking details,” etc. Deb’s account was an early vector for such a scam—pulled off by a hacker, later traced to West Africa, whose first step was to permanently erase the entirety of her existing messages. Michael Jones was at the time the Chief Technology Advocate for the Google company as a whole—a job title invented specifically for him—and, as explained in the article, he helped me understand exactly how the hackers worked; how tech companies were trying to keep ahead of them; and how, eventually, many years’ worth of Deb’s correspondence could be retrieved.
Deb and I had known Michael for several years at that point. I first met him at a tech-world conference where he and colleagues from a small company called Keyhole were describing a new digital-mapping product they had developed. In 2004, Google acquired that Keyhole company and its software, which in turn became the basis of Google Earth. I don’t know how many people around the world would recognize Michael Jones’s name or be aware of his story. But by most reckonings at least a billion people around the world, every day, use the company’s mapping tools—Google Earth, Google Maps, and related products—to get through traffic, to find out if a store is open, to see how their house looks from above. That last example is deliberate: When demonstrating Google Earth’s aerial view to me in the program’s early stages, Michael said that the first thing nearly all users did was enter their own address and zoom in on it.
In 2013, I did a Q-and-A with Michael Jones in the magazine on how always-available mapping had already changed daily life, and what changes lay ahead. One of his answers illustrated his constant linking of technology and the humanities. (Although his formal education lasted only through one year at North Carolina State University, he was deeply informed about history and literature, and their connections with technology). He likened the rise of digital mapping tools to previous revolutions in systematized knowledge:
I would consider this [digitized mapping] like Dr. Johnson’s compilation of a dictionary of the English language, or maybe the rise of the encyclopedia. It’s the creation of a universal reference work, reflecting a lot of labor and great expense, that everybody can rely on.
If you think about Dr. Johnson’s dictionary from the point of view of English literature, you might say, “Well, Johnson—he did a dictionary.” But what else could you do with words on a piece of paper? Maybe you could write mysteries, or comedy, or adventure stories. You can do a lot of things with the words in his dictionary.
We think there will be a new literature from the mapping dictionary that’s now being built.
And another answer reflected what I can only call a boyish joy in discovery and learning, which lasted through his final days. I asked what had surprised him in the effects of mapping technology, and he said that one bad surprise was the touchiness of many governments about geographical-labeling issues. But:
A better surprise has to do with the interest of people in geography.
Geography was a class that few embraced in school. In elementary school, they make you color in maps to show where the oceans and continents are. And yet, when we were starting Keyhole, we read a report that one-fifth of American elementary-school students couldn’t point out the Pacific Ocean on a map.
We thought, “This is wrong. We’re going to fix this problem. We’re going to make learning about the Earth fun, instead of boring …. ”
We were saying … “We are going to make discovering the Earth a joy”—like you’re dating a planet and you want to know it, to hear all about its past and hopes. That’s what we did: we made something immersive and engaging and personal. You can fly to your home—fly to your parents’ home—and remember the time you snuck out in the backyard and did something you shouldn’t do, or the place where you had a first kiss, or the place you got married.
What we didn’t expect was how many people would share that joy with us.
Such was Michael’s polymath curiosity that he also discovered the truth about the unavoidable “boiled frog” cliché. It turns out, as Michael reported here, that a frog will indeed sit still in a pot of gradually heated water, just as the cliché holds. But it will do so only if its brain has already been removed. A normal, sentient frog will hop out as soon as things get too warm. It occurred to a German scientist to demonstrate this experimentally in the late 1800s.
Last summer, the Royal Geographical Society in London awarded Michael Jones its highest honor, its Patron’s Medal, as I noted at the time. He did a revealing interview with the RGS, about the meanings of maps, of geography, and of the inventor’s temperament. In an outtake version of that interview, which June Jones shared with me, Michael said this:
Everyone is an inventor; you need only ignore limits and preconceptions then ask yourself “how should it be?” Inventors are just laborers toiling to make things be as we feel they should.
For me, a key trait is passion for ideas, loving them as parents love children and grandchildren: embracing them, sacrificing for them, excusing the worst and believing the best of them, being patient and supportive with an enduring love as they mature. Like children, they take time to develop into the brightness of their promise.
I have been this way all my life.
I miss Michael Jones and am glad to have known him. Those who never met or knew of him should pause in appreciation of what he and others like him have done.
The pandemic ravaged America’s big cities first, and now its countryside. The public-health and economic repercussions have been felt everywhere. But they have been hardest on the smallest businesses, and the most vulnerable families and communities.
This is an update, following a report last month, on plans to repair the damage now being done.
1) What the federal government can do: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a group concentrating on the business-structure, technological, political, and other obstacles that have held small cities and rural areas back—and how they might be reversed.
This month the ILSR released a report on steps the federal government could take to foster business and civic renewal at the local level. The report is available in PDF here, and a summary is here. The larger argument is designed to:
… help the federal government avoid the mistakes made in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis …
Rather than the housing sector [as in the previous crisis], the current economic fallout is decimating America’s small businesses. Nearly 100,000 small, independent businesses have already closed their doors permanently, with Black-owned businesses taking the biggest hit. As of early November, small business revenue was down a stunning 31 percent from January. As small businesses close or hang on by their fingernails, meanwhile, a handful of big corporations are recording massive profits, increasing their already-dominant market share, and dramatically accelerating concentration of the economy….
People are losing their dreams and livelihoods. Neighborhoods are losing beloved local stores and gathering spots. The country is losing much of its local productive capacity. To answer this generational challenge, we must have a federal economic recovery strategy focused on rebuilding, creating, and growing America’s small, independent businesses.
The report covers large policy areas—a different approach to antitrust—and very tangible specifics, like the way credit-card processing fees are handled. It is certainly worth consideration by the Biden team. (And, in the same vein, here is another worthwhile piece, by Maddie Oatman in Mother Jones, on the importance of economic prospects for rural America.)
2) What some state governments can do (a California model): Responding to a crisis that is both global and intensely local naturally involves a combination of measures—international efforts to detect and contain disease, nationwide economic strategies, and city-by-city and state-by-state responses to the problems and opportunities of each locale.
One of California’s innovations that deserves broader attention is its “Little Hoover Commission.” After World War II, current president Harry Truman appointed former president Herbert Hoover to head a commission looking into broad questions of government organization and efficiency. That was the “big” Hoover Commission.
This month, the Little Hoover Commission has released its report on how badly the pandemic-era economic implosion is hurting businesses and families in California, and what might be done about it. The executive summary is here, and the full report is here.
I won’t attempt to summarize the whole thing here, but in essence their recommendation is an emergency effort to link public and private resources of all sorts—individual donors, NGOs, corporations, financial institutions—in a “rebuilding fund.” The fund, in turn, would concentrate on small businesses, and especially those in disadvantaged communities. One of its recommendations:
The state needs to use its megaphone to make financial institutions, private investors, and philanthropic donors aware of the Rebuilding Fund and to encourage high-net-worth individuals, impact investors, and major corporations to lend and/or donate to the Rebuilding Fund.
This may include working with regional business councils to disseminate information about the Rebuilding Fund and explain why it is vital to support small businesses, especially those in underserved communities. It may also include fully leveraging existing state investment networks..
In order to encourage investment, GO-Biz and IBank should also develop a strategy for publicly recognizing institutional investors and explore additional means for incentivizing participation.
In parallel with this effort, two California-based business-and-economic authorities, Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca, have put out a paper on the urgency of a new federal stimulus program. (For the record, both of them are friends of mine.) They say:
It is incumbent on the federal government to provide more generous and flexible funding for state and local governments. Governors and mayors across the country are pleading for help ahead of a challenging winter. Most states and cities have exhausted rainy-day funds and are facing a collective shortfall of $400 billion or more, according to the most recent estimates.
Because most state and local governments cannot legally spend more than they receive in revenues, they need federal funds to cover their growing fiscal gaps. Without such support, they will have no choice but to raise taxes or cut essential services and employment in health, public safety, and education, as many are already doing. Either option will undermine the countercyclical effects of federal stimulus, thereby weakening the recovery.
At the fiat of Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate seems likely to end this year without addressing the states’ and cities’ needs. Many states and cities are improvising in useful ways, but national crises require a national response. Help!
3) Ways around the college-degree bottleneck: Research universities and four-year colleges are simultaneously the glory and the heartbreak of America’s educational system. They’re the glory for obvious reasons. They’re the heartbreak because of the financial challenges for many liberal-arts schools, and the student-debt burdens for millions of young people, and the factors that can make higher education reinforce existing privileges, rather than offset them.
The negative power of judging people purely by sheepskin credentials is very familiar. (I actually did an Atlanticcover story about it 35 years ago, here.) But a positive counterpart in the past few years has been rapidly opening pathways to careers that don’t require a four-year degree. That’s what we’ve emphasized in our reports on community colleges, “career technical” programs in high schools, apprenticeship systems, and other ways of matching people with the opportunities of this moment.
Last week The New York Timeshad a story by Steve Lohr with the headline, “Up to 30 Million in U.S. Have the Skills to Earn 70% More, Researchers Say.”
This is a great headline that conveys the essential point: There are opportunities (post-pandemic) for people who for various reasons have not completed the four-year bachelor’s gantlet. More information is available at Opportunity@Work and through the Rework America Alliance. (For the record, I know many of the people involved in the Opportunity and Reword initiatives.)
As with previous dispatches, none of these approaches is “the” answer to this era’s many crises. But they’re all potential parts of an answer. They deserve attention.
As it was in 2016, so it is again in 2020: A central axis of national-election results is the rural-urban gulf. Larger cities—really, conurbations of any sort—mainly went for Joe Biden. Donald Trump’s major strength was in the smallest cities and in rural areas.
Obviously there has been more to Donald Trump’s power than purely regional dynamics. (In particular, there are racial dynamics, as laid out here and here and here.) And as Deb Fallows and I have argued for years, the United States looks more hopelessly divided when it comes to national elections than it does from any other perspective. For instance, see these dispatches from western Kansas, back in 2016.
But also obviously, national elections matter, and regional and locational polarization makes every other challenge for America more difficult. In a new paper for Brookings, John Austin argues that Midwestern voting patterns for Trump and Biden show how the sense of being “left behind” fuels resentment-driven politics—and how a sense of possibility can have the opposite effect. August Benzow of The Economic Innovation Group has a related paper on the stark differences within rural America on racial diversity, economic positioning, and political outlook.
Does anyone have an idea of how to blunt these differences and open more opportunities? Especially as a new administration faces all the economic, public health, law-enforcement, and other crises the new Biden team is about to take on? Here are some recent items worth noticing:
1) A Marshall Plan for Middle America: During election years, reporters troop into cities (and especially diners) in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other parts of “interior America” to get political quotes. Then, typically, the press spotlight moves someplace else.
This past weekend in The Washington Post, the mayors of eight of these middle-American cities wrote about what could be done to move their areas ahead. These are places we know and have written about, many of whose mayors we also know personally. The cities are Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Youngstown in Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and Huntington and Morgantown, West Virginia. All are in the Appalachian or Ohio River Valley regions, often stereotyped in national discourse as the land of coal mines and decrepit factories.
The mayors argue that it is time to draw on the region’s manufacturing heritage, and recreate its economy in a fundamental way. For instance:
According to our research, taking advantage of our community assets, geographic positioning and the strengths of our regional markets can help create over 400,000 jobs across the region by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades to buildings, energy infrastructure and transportation assets.
Renewable sources of power are proving less expensive, and fossil fuel companies are increasingly dependent on federal subsidies to survive. Couldn’t these subsidies be strategically shifted to invest in a green economy that keeps these largely suburban and rural jobs but transitions them, with federal support, into new industries that will grow in the 21st century?
Like our friends at Reimagine Appalachia—a grass-roots community and environmental organization—we believe a Marshall Plan-scale reinvestment is necessary. Rather than a “Green New Deal,” our plan would seed long-term regional investments in Appalachia’s rural and suburban communities, while leveraging the technological successes of our tentpole cities to assist them. The same goes for our neighbors in the Ohio River Valley throughout the Rust Belt and up to the Great Lakes region.
2) Reducing Polarization by Modernizing Rural Policy: The political and cultural ramifications of a rural-urban divide are hot topics journalistically. “Rural policy,” not so much. But in a new report for Brookings (available here), Anthony Pipa and Nathalie Geismar argue that straightening out the rat’s-nest of programs intended to help rural America could make a big difference.
Rat’s nest? Take a look at this organization chart included in the Brookings report:
“The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further disrupt local economies that in 2019 were still recovering from the Great Recession” and other long-term disruptions, Pipa and Geismar write. They add:
Just recently, COVID-19 prevalence in nonmetro U.S. areas surpassed those in metro areas for the first time; Rural residents are now almost 2.5 times more likely than urban residents to die from the virus. This is compounded by the decreasing access to health care that many rural communities face …
Now, rural communities must navigate a virtual world of work with intermittent broadband access and adapt to additional shocks to manufacturing and agriculture supply chains ….
Despite these challenges, rural communities are diverse—both demographically and economically—and entrepreneurial. They help power, feed, and protect America at rates disproportionate to other geographies. They house 99 percent of wind power capacity and will play a key role in national climate strategies that require investments in clean energy infrastructure.
The report has many recommendations, but here are the three main ones:
Launch anew development corporation, to invest in local vision and leadership through long-term block grants at the community level and innovative financing tools that give communities a fighting chance to strengthen and renew their local institutions, economies, and vision.
Create a national rural strategy, elevate White House and interagency leadership, and undertake a set of specific and targeted reforms to enhance federal coherence and effectiveness.
Appoint abipartisancongressional commission to undertake a top-to-bottom review regarding the effectiveness of federal assistance and build political momentum to transform federal rural policy.
3) Local journalism and local recovery: This is a big ongoing theme, which will only gain in importance if recovery efforts like those mentioned above are giving a serious try in communities across the country. Margaret Sullivan of TheWashington Post, a former editor herself and an indispensable media observer, published a book this year about the accelerating forces working against local news. Just after this year’s election, Dan Kennedy, another important longtime media writer, argued on the GBH news site that shoring up local journalism would have direct benefits community-by-community, plus the broader potential of calming down now-fevered national discussions. On the Poynter site, Rick Edmonds—yet another important longtime media writer—gives a comprehensive overview of how “shoring up” might actually work. For instance:
As the pandemic advertising recession and longstanding negative trends have made the financial precariousness of these enterprises obvious, Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news. The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.
My take comes from conversations with a variety of advocacy groups pushing one form or another of legislative assistance. A surprising favorite approach has emerged, too—direct subsidies for news subscribers, local journalists and small business advertisers.
That’s the structure of HR 7640, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and more than 70 co-sponsors from both parties.
There is a lot more detail in Edmonds’s piece, and the others. (See also this pre-election analysis at the Ground Truth Project, by Steven Waldman, whose work I have described here.) And while I’m at it, please check out the latest dispatch from John Miller, creator of the film Moundsville, about regional culture gaps. Also this, by Katherine Bindley in TheWall Street Journal, about big-city tech-industry people who have considered entirely different careers, in entirely different parts of the country, because of the pandemic.
Important transformation work is underway at the national level, as I’ll discuss in an upcoming print-magazine article. But that would be doomed, or at least limited, without comparably intense efforts to improve local-level prospects. These ideas are a start.
What else is going on in the country, with less than two weeks in this consequential election season? Here is a sampling of recent articles and developments worth notice.
Prospects for local journalism: The strength and importance of local journalism have always grown from its attention to the local: What is happening in the town or region, what is getting better or worse, how local institutions are responding. Even as national politics have become more polarized and tribal, local news organizations have often been able to focus attention and engagement on important issues (rather than divisive spectacles) that can be solved (rather than just argued about).
This is why several trends of recent years have been so destructive in civic terms. These include the economic pressures on small, independent news outlets; the gobbling up of many surviving outlets by private-equity chains; and the determination of national TV chains like Sinclair to convert local TV-news outlets into extensions of the national-politics crusades. A recent story by Davey Alba and Jack Nicas in The New York Times has drawn a lot of attention for showing how the Sinclair model—franchised, faux-“local” versions of national messaging—is spreading to the print and online realms.
Some recent developments worth noting, on the other side:
From Poynter, an essay by Steven Waldman on why these new pressures on local journalism matter, and what could be done about them. Waldman, a longtime friend, is among other things a co-founder of Report for America, which I have written about, and of the Rebuild Local News coalition. In his Poynter essay he points out the goods and bads of this moment in local news:
As a point of reference, consider this: One of the most positive trends has been the rise of local nonprofit news organizations. Today, there are about 300 of them, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Yes, that’s less than one quarter of the number of these faux news sites that have popped up recently.
The problem is increasingly not that communities will get no information but that they’ll get disinformation, or information whose provenance is unknown.
From David Plotz, long of Slate and Atlas Obscura, the announcement of a new locally oriented podcast series, called City Cast. In a post on Medium describing the project, Plotz writes:
I’m starting City Cast because I believe the future is local ….
Thanks to the pandemic, a staggering economic crisis, the protest movement against police violence and systemic racism, and well, just 2020 in general, America has never needed great local journalism more than it does today ….
Where local news is sparse or feeble, communities suffer: Political activity declines; local businesses weaken; mistrust grows. We become more divided, more insular, and more hopeless. If you live in a community with hollowed-out media, you feel that every day.
Good luck to Plotz and his City Cast colleagues.
For another illustration of an innovative local model, check out Canopy Atlanta, and its inaugural issue on the city’s West End—and this report by Rick Edmonds, of Poynter, about the way three regional papers are trying to expand rather than budget-cut their way to survival.
And, for an economic-development perspective on which accurate local news matters, see a recent installment of The Chung Report, by James Chung, which has had an ongoing focus on development in Chung’s original hometown of Wichita, Kansas. In “Why Transparency Matters,” Chung explores how a medium-sized city like Wichita, with a strong university presence (Wichita State) and a historic role as a center of aerospace technology, can deal with its long-term civic and economic challenges.
Economic recovery after the pandemic: The story of the moment is of accelerating economic and public-health damage from the (disastrously managed) pandemic. The next story will be about the ways families, companies, cities, and regions can begin to recover.
Some of this effort will be national and global in scale. Some will be intensely local. Here are several worthwhile guides:
From the Heartland Forward project, a report on an economic recovery strategy for Northwest Arkansas. Why this part of the country? Heartland Forward’s founders include younger members of the Walton family and, along with the Walton Family Foundation, it has concentrated on economic and civic revival in non-coastal America, notably including the Walmart headquarters area of Northwest Arkansas.
This new report (in PDF here) is largely devoted to both the immediate and the longer-term effects of the pandemic. It also addresses the region’s diversity and racial-justice issues. Historically, this part of the state (which was not part of the antebellum plantation economy) has had a large-majority white population; according to the report, only 2.5 percent of the local population is Black. The report flatly says that to progress, the region must intentionally make itself more welcoming and inclusive:
“It is paramount that the region’s major employers continue to attract and retain diverse talent … In addition, building up diverse populations assists new members to the community feel comfortable and secure, as well as helps to make the existing culture more welcoming to outsiders …. NWA [Northwest Arkansas] should consider ways to make diverse populations feel more welcome in the community …”
Even if you’re not interested in this part of the country, the report is worth noticing as an illustration of how regions with distinctive strengths and limitations can think realistically about their possibilities.
From Jason Segedy, planning director for the city of Akron, two valuable essays on how cities can approach these new rebuilding challenges. One, in The American Conservative, is about how cities can become more “inclusive” even in the face of likely long-term decline. The other, for the Economic Innovation Group, is about how “legacy cities,” of smaller size and yesteryear’s industry, can find a future. He uses the example of another city we’ve written about, Dayton:
There is also a certain level of love for a mid-sized city like Dayton that is often not as present in larger places, where many people might be there for less emotional and more utilitarian economic reasons. This can lead to higher levels of civic engagement and community support. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and the civically-engaged and community-minded can potentially have more of a positive impact, being bigger fish in a smaller pond. “When you really love something, you want to make it better,” says Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy advisor to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
At the same time, the way that the economy has changed over the past four decades has made it far more difficult for these cities to succeed. Consolidation of major industrial corporations has really hurt cities like Akron and Dayton, as these cities first lost thousands of blue-collar production jobs and then ultimately lost most of the white-collar professional jobs that remained.
From Allentown, Pennsylvania, an update on the ongoing redevelopment of the city’s old heavy-manufacturing sites. Several years ago John Tierney wrote about small, modern startups in what was once the Mack Truck plant. (It is now known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.) The next industrial site for renovation is a former steel fabrication plant, known as the Metal Works. You can read about its situation here.
From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a report on how much money state and local governments have already devoted to sustaining small businesses through the pandemic era—but how much more federal help will inevitably be needed. The report (PDF here), by Kennedy Smith, says:
“The relief programs provided by local and state governments have kept hundreds of thousands of small businesses afloat so far and helped them adapt to the surreal commercial environment the pandemic has created. But absent additional and ongoing funding these crucial programs will cease, leaving hundreds of thousands of small businesses at risk of going under in the coming months.”
Small businesses across the country have been through very tough times these past six-plus months. But—as in so many other aspects of pandemic effects—without help, even tougher times may lie ahead. For a previous ILSR report on steps cities can take to sustain their independent businesses, see this.
One of our ongoing threads through the years has been the importance of skilled-trades jobs, as sources of opportunity and offsets to an ever-more-polarized economy. Advanced-manufacturing jobs, work designing and maintaining robotic systems, jobs in aerospace and health care and advanced agriculture—almost all of these have had more job openings than applicants in recent years, and many do not require a four-year college diploma. NPR has a new segment on this trend, and the importance of apprenticeships. You can read its report by Adedayo Akala and listen to the broadcast here.
Cityscape: I very much enjoyed this map of fall foliage in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where we have spent a lot of time. Check it out. Sample shot below.
This evening we’ll see Donald Trump and Joe Biden on the same stage, in the first of what are scheduled to be three debates.
I will confess that I did not think this event would occur—and I am still not sure about the subsequent ones. So many things are outside usual norms this year; so many points of potential disagreement could arise (would there be an audience? who would be the moderators? what about fact checkers—or mask requirements, or allowing the candidates to direct questions at each other?); so little enforcement power is in the hands of the Commission on Presidential Debates, or the networks, or anyone except the candidates and parties themselves.
Many people assume, “Oh, sure, we’ll have debates,” but it turns out that these are among the many fragile norms of modern politics. After the most famous televised debate, which nearly everyone has heard of, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, there were no debates for half a generation. Not in 1964, nor 1968, nor 1972, and not until 1976—and then only because incumbent Gerald Ford, far behind Jimmy Carter in the polls, agreed to meet him in debates. (For the record, I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign then, including in debate prep.)
Even after the debate tradition was revived in 1976, there was only one debate in 1980—because Jimmy Carter, as the incumbent, would not agree to debates that included not just Ronald Reagan but also the third-party candidate, Republican Representative John Anderson of Illinois.
But here we are. I’ve done print-magazine previews of the previous debate cycles in this century. These include: “An Acquired Taste,” 20 years ago, about the showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush; “When George Meets John,” in 2004, about Bush and John Kerry; “Rhetorical Questions,” about Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008; “Slugfest,” in 2012, predicting that the incumbent Obama would not sufficiently prepare for Mitt Romney; and “When Donald Meets Hillary,” four years ago, in which I quoted Jane Goodall on the resemblances between Donald Trump’s on-stage demeanor and the “dominance rituals” she had seen among male chimps.
That was then. This time, I’ll do live commentary on this site. Kickoff comments, an hour before things begin:
Usually debates don’t really “matter.” Tonight’s encounter is a moment of high drama—as I’ll get to, in a moment. And from the annals of debate history a handful of moments stand out and have even become part of popular lore. For instance in 1988, Lloyd Bentsen, then Michael Dukakis’s Democratic running mate, dressing down Dan Quayle, then running with George H. W. Bush, with “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Or eight years earlier, Ronald Reagan lightly dismissing the earnest Jimmy Carter with, “There you go again.” They have been, at times, gripping TV. But political scientists are unconvinced that they have really been decisive axes in most elections.
But we watch anyway, for two reasons. One is: Debates bring the two presidential contenders together in the same place at the same. That almost never happens otherwise. The other: They’re live. Anything can happen. As I write, I don’t know whether one candidate or the other might say or do something significant. No one knows, which is why we watch.
The results are already predictable. Trump supporters will think that Trump has won. Biden supporters and Trump opponents will not. Everything about Trump—his showmanship strengths, his accuracy and comportment weaknesses—is well known, and allowed for, by those who support him and those (like me) who don’t. I have learned that my imagination cannot fully encompass current realities, but it’s hard for me to imagine Trump saying or doing anything that would erode his base of report.
A related point: “Winning” or “losing” in debates, even in more reality-based times than our own, has virtually nothing to do with policies or ideas or factual disputes. It’s about comportment, confidence, the dreaded “likability,” and other factors making voters feel comfortable with the idea of you in their living room.
The incumbent curse: As I mentioned in my Bush-Kerry and Obama-Romney pieces, an incumbent president usually struggles in the first debate of a fall campaign. (Also as mentioned, incumbent Jimmy Carter’s first debate against Ronald Reagan was his only debate, which magnified the effects of his relatively weak performance in that one.) For most presidents, this is because of the preceding years of deference from all they meet, who don’t dare say, “You’re just wrong…” How this will affect a man like Donald Trump, I dare not guess.
The related “expectations game”: Since there is no objective way to determine winners and losers, for decades political aides had worked on beating expectations. This is the political version of beating the point spread in sports wagering. “Our guy held his own,” “he was ready for all their attacks,” “she did surprisingly well”—judgments like these dominate post-debate spin. As I mentioned in my 2004 piece, George W. Bush and his team very consciously played this game. How could he, a humble Texas lad, hope to match fancy phrases with silver-tongued John Kerry? (He had previously used this strategy against Ann Richards during Texas gubernatorial debates.)
For reasons I can’t explain, Trump representatives have mainly tried the opposite strategy with Biden—stressing that he is old, senescent, can barely string together words. We’ll see how this pans out. (After Biden gave a very effective speech at the Democratic National Convention, commentary from Trump partisans was, “That’s nothing, anyone can read from a prompter.”)
The big unknown: Whether Biden and his team will decide to go
angry/outraged in response to Trump’s foreseeable attacks—on Hunter Biden, on Biden’s mental state, on his life in “the swamp,” et cetera—or instead to seem genially dismissive and above the fray. A tell for the first approach would be remarks on the lines of “how dare you...”; for the second, a counterpart to “There you go again,” or even “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
The other big unknown: How the moderator, Chris Wallace, will wrestle with the foreseeable farrago of false claims by Trump. In his interview shows, he has directly said, “Sir, that’s not true.” Presumably he will leave most of that work to Biden, but some may fall to him.
We’ll see. In the meantime, here are two other articles that I think do a good job of discussing the knowns-and-unknowns this evening. One is by Bill Goodykoontz, in AZ Central. The other is by Matt Cooper, in The Washington Monthly.
Back in the early days of the pandemic, when some people imagined that changes in American life might be a matter of months rather than of years, I wrote aboutCalifornia Volunteers and its response to the crisis.
This is a publicly sponsored organization, serving the nation’s most populous state, designed to do what organizations from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, to the Kennedy-era Peace Corps, to more contemporary organizations (with a variety of funding models)—from the Job Corps to Americorps to City Year to Report for America to Code for America—have aspired to do. Namely: matching people of all ages (but mainly younger people) who have an interest in service with the most pressing needs for service in the America of these times.
This past week, California Volunteers announced an expansion of its program: a new California Climate Action Corps, designed to address both the causes and the effects (drought, wildfire, mudslides, intense heat) of California’s exposure to climate change. The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced the creation of the Climate Action Corps a day after his executive order that all cars sold in the state (the largest single auto market in the U.S.) meet a zero-emissions standard by 2035.
In practice, this new program will mean that some 250 “climate action fellows” will work on sustainability projects across the state. The benefit for the fellows is that they receive a stipend and experience during their period of service, and afterwards receive a grant to help cover college costs. “We’re going to work city-by-city toward meeting their community goals,” Josh Fryday, the head of California Volunteers, told me last week. “In Los Angeles, it could be helping them meet their tree-planting goals.” In other communities, it could be efforts to support sustainable forestry or agriculture (for instance, with the Grizzly Corps), or to help food banks, or other goals determined locally.
I asked our friend Shelli Stockton, head of Alumni and Community Relations at the University of Redlands, what these Climate Corps members might do in her city of Redlands, which has been closely involved with Josh Fryday’s group in planning roles for Climate Corps members.
She said there were several areas of climate-mitigation work in which a community like hers—in an arid edge of the Mojave Desert, very hot, surrounded by recent wildfires—might use efforts like those the state is now preparing for. (And, to be clear, a “community like hers” is also a “community like mine”—this is the place, in the “Inland Empire” of California, where I grew up and which I still consider home.)
“One was tree planting,” she said, as previously described here. The larger argument is that community-by-community tree-planting efforts obviously are not the answer to the world’s climate issues—but they are nonetheless a large source of impact for most people in most parts of the world.
Others included “food diversion” efforts, to direct “waste” and surplus food from grocery chains and large restaurants to food banks and other organizations that could put the food to use. Also: “fire resilience” efforts, to help protect businesses and homes in the many fire-prone areas in the vicinity.
“But the project I’m most excited about,” Stockton told me, “involves the social-justice aspects of tree canopy cover.” As mentioned in this post about Los Angeles, in the hottest parts of the country, tree cover has been an increasingly important environmental-justice issue. Where there are suburbs and big houses, there have been trees; where not, not. “We’d like to identify the areas with the lowest tree-canopy cover, and send out fellows to help people in the community understand how to help these trees thrive,” she said. “Without help on the front end, a lot of these trees are just going to die.”
California’s Climate Action Corps is not the answer to all of the state’s modern problems. But it is a step in the right direction.
Everyone who knew him has been shocked by the news that Ted Halstead, a founder of New America and pioneer of many other causes and organizations, has died in the past few days in a hiking accident in Spain. He had recently turned 52.
Accidental deaths are by definition shocking, but intensely so in Ted’s case, because he has seemed to personify youth and promise. At age 25, he founded a group called Redefining Progress, designed to examine the equity, sustainability, and inclusiveness of economic growth. This led to a cover story in The Atlantic two years later, by Ted, Jonathan Rowe, and Clifford Cobb, with the prescient title, “If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?”
In 1998, just after he turned 30, Ted was a co-founder (with Michael Lind, Walter Russell Mead, and Sherle Schwenninger) and the first CEO of the New America Foundation, now known as New America. It was because of New America that I met Ted in that summer of 1998. I had just been cashiered from a doomed journalism job (news magazine editor, for an owner who routinely ran through editors), and was about to go to work in the software business. Ted called to introduce himself and ask if I would join the New America cause. I served as board chairman over the next dozen years, before moving to China, and spent much of the first few years going with Ted on fundraising missions to get this think tank off the ground.
New America flourished; Ted was an influential speaker and author, with two books and a number of pieces for The Atlantic(and elsewhere). After an intense, nonstop ten years in this role, he left New America (succeeded by Steve Coll, and then Anne-Marie Slaughter) and stepped aside from the world of dawn-to-dusk meetings with legislators, presentations at conferences, sessions with New America’s growing ranks of researchers, and trips to the green rooms of cable-news shows. Instead, he spent nearly five years sailing around the world in a small catamaran with his wife, Veronique.
In 2012 they sold the boat and settled in Majorca, to start a family. My wife, Deb, and I frequently talked about when we would go visit them—and kept putting it off. Then in 2016, while in his 40s, Ted founded the Climate Leadership Council, whose idea (as with New America) was to bring together progressives and conservatives, business people and scientists and civic activists and others, all to promote policies of decarbonization and sustainability measures. That was the center of his speaking, writing, and organizing activity until his sudden death.
Successful entrepreneurs, founders, visionaries, leaders—they have a certain personality that is different from the rest of us. They talk big, they dream big, they promise big, and the best get others to believe along with them. Ted Halstead was one of the best. From an early age, he thought, talked, promised, and achieved on a very big scale. I am very glad to have known and worked with him, and I hope his example will inspire many others.
Domesticated betta fish have evolved a sex gene not found in wild fish of their species.
In 1975, scientists tried spaying a few hundred female betta fish. We all know what happens to spayed cats and dogs: They become sterile. Betta fish are different. A third of the surviving bettas regenerated an ovary—which, okay, interesting enough. But the remaining two-thirds did something much, much stranger: They grew testes. They turned brighter and darker in color too—like male bettas. They grew elongated fins—like males. They even started making sperm—like males, obviously. When mated with other female betta fish, these females-turned-males produced offspring that looked perfectly healthy. The only notable oddity was that the resulting broods were usually, but not always, exclusively female.
It’s time to prepare for a new and better normal than your pre-pandemic life.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for In Pursuit of Happiness here.
Many years ago, I met a woman who had had the kind of experience you ordinarily only find in fiction. As a young adult, she was in a serious car accident, resulting in a head injury. She suffered a period of total amnesia, followed by months of convalescence. When she recovered, she was never the same: Her family relationships weakened; she cut out former friends and found new ones; she moved halfway across the world; her interests and tastes changed; she became more outgoing and less self-conscious; she no longer cared much what other people thought about her.
Today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
A few weeks ago, I met my first Millennial grandparent. I was interviewing a woman in her late 30s about President Joe Biden’s new child-tax-credit proposal, and she mentioned that it would benefit not just her two young kids but her older son’s kid too.
The incidental meeting was a reminder both that Millennials are getting older and that they are doing so without growing up, at least not in the way that many of them might wish. The woman I interviewed does not own a home, nor is she anywhere close to affording one. She has nothing in the way of savings. Nevertheless, she is a grandmother, catapulting into middle age.
Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed. The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car—yet again. But today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
When people share a space, their collective experience can sprout its own vocabulary, known as a familect.
I celebrated my second pandemic birthday recently. Many things were weird about it: opening presents on Zoom, my phone’s insistent photo reminders from “one year ago today” that could be mistaken for last month, my partner brightly wishing me “iki domuz,” a Turkish phrase that literally means “two pigs.”
Well, that last one is actually quite normal in our house. Long ago, I took my first steps into adult language lessons and tried to impress my Turkish American boyfriend on his special day. My younger self nervously bungled through new vocabulary—The numbers! The animals! The months!—to wish him “iki domuz” instead of “happy birthday” (İyi ki doğdun) while we drank like pigs in his tiny apartment outside of UCLA. Now, more than a decade later, that slipup is immortalized as our own peculiar greeting to each other twice a year.
Menstruating is painful, expensive, and … unnecessary?
At the posthumous retrial of Joan of Arc in 1455, two decades after she was burned at the stake as a witch and a heretic, she was declared an innocent martyr. During the trial, a personal valet offered evidence of Joan of Arc’s piety and purity during her 19 years on Earth: “She never suffered from the secret illness of women.” As far as the people closest to her knew, he claimed, she never got her period.
Saintly qualifications aside, amenorrhea—the abnormal absence of periods—has historically been linked with misfortune. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates wrote that “when the menses are stopped, diseases from the uterus take place.” In 1652, the physician Nicolas Fontanus identified amenorrhea “as the most universal and most usual cause” for palsy, melancholy, burning fevers, nausea, headaches, and a distaste for meat. Some 18th-century physicians believed that suppressed menses could cause a married woman to spiral into deep hysteria, and even in 1961, the epidemiologist Frances Drew proposed that a young woman might manifest mental anguish by losing her period.
Three years after his polarizing confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court’s 114th justice remains a mystery.
This article was published online on May 13, 2021.
The suburban gentry of Chevy Chase, Maryland, had some difficulty making sense of Brett Kavanaugh’s descent into villainy that fall. He had always seemed so nice and nonthreatening to his neighbors, so normal—the khaki-clad carpool dad who coached the girls’ basketball team and yammered endlessly about the Nats. It was true that his politics were unusual for the neighborhood, the kind of place where No Justice / No Peace signs stand righteously in front of million-dollar homes. But Brett was not a scary Republican, of the kind who had recently invaded Washington. He was well educated and properly socialized, a friend of the Bushes, a stalwart of the country club. When his nomination to the Supreme Court was first announced, the neighborhood had largely welcomed the news. People gave interviews attesting to his niceness; the owner of the Chevy Chase Lounge said that he would add Brett’s photo to the wall of famous patrons.
Vaccination requirements in stores, offices, and schools can offer peace of mind. But they’re rarely going to prove anything.
If you have been fortunate enough to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, you also possess an essential, high-tech tool for proving your immunity to others.
Just kidding, it’s a piece of cardstock. On the flimsy rectangle that all Americans get with their shots, doctors and pharmacists record dates of administration, vaccine type, and lot number. Some scrawl the information by hand with a pen; others apply a preprinted sticker. The cards offer no special marker to prove their authenticity, no scannable code to connect to a digital record. At three by four inches, they’re even too awkwardly sized to fit in a wallet. A mid-century polio-vaccine card doesn’t look too different from today’s COVID-19 vaccination records.
On Monday morning, my partner laid a carry-on suitcase down on the floor, preparing to pack for his first post-vaccination trip to visit his parents. The moment he unzipped the bag, our cat Calvin promptly clambered inside.
A piece of me would like to think that Calvin was attempting to covertly join my partner on his trip, or perhaps thwart his inevitable attempt to spirit away. But I’m pretty sure #OccupyLuggage was less a heart-wrenching bid to tag along on a flight, and more a textbook example of a central scientific tenet: Cats are absolute suckers for boxes. And sinks, and vases, and grocery bags, and shoes, and Pringles cans, and the nooks and crannies between furniture and walls, and just about any other space they deem cozy, confining, and swaddly. (Cats, in case you were wondering, are a non-Newtonian liquid.) It’s the one thing about which our pointy-eared companions are not terribly picky: If it fits, they sits. And when they do, we humans can’t help but obsess over them.
The agency’s communication strategy has lagged so consistently behind the research that it’s brought new meaning to the concept of “following the science.”
Yesterday, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated Americans can stop wearing masks in most indoor and outdoor places. The new guidelines still advise the fully vaccinated to mask up when entering certain public areas, such as doctor’s offices.
This is a moment to celebrate. It is not quite the pandemic’s equivalent of V-E Day; after all, thousands of people are still dying around the world each day from a virus that, far from surrendering, may be endemic. But it could be the closest we get to a formal announcement from the federal government that, after months of death and sacrifice and ingenuity, something has been won. Call it normalcy.
If you’re surprised by the agency’s free-your-face announcement, you’re not alone. State officials had no idea it was coming. Businesses were caught off guard. Even White House officials were reportedly surprised by both the timing and the substance of the new advice, according to CNN. The CDC is notionally in the business of offering public-health guidance. But when a government agency’s recommendations consistently surprise or confuse members of its own government, one wonders if it’s serving as a particularly effective guide.
Our culture is pettily vindictive in part because it is unequal. But we cannot punish our way to a more just society.
The purest eruption of spite I have ever witnessed took place at a former friend’s birthday party some years ago. We were all in our early 20s, and alcohol had been flowing freely. I slipped into the kitchen to refill my drink; when I returned, the birthday girl, her cheeks flushed from the wine, had become incensed at her boyfriend for some unaccountable transgression.
On the coffee table was an enormous cake, brought by her now-disgraced beloved. The birthday girl seized the platter and, with a terrific crash, hurled the cake to the floor. “Now none of us can have any,” she seethed, raising an accusatory frosting-covered finger as guests began edging toward the door.
Spite defies logic. We act spitefully—lashing out to harm someone else, even at a cost to ourselves—when the desire to punish overrides other considerations. People in the throes of spite’s poisonous pleasures do not care if they injure themselves, or make the whole world worse off, so long as they satisfy their rancor. Yet because spite involves a self-inflicted cost, this petty and ultimately antisocial emotion bears a family resemblance to altruism. Many spiteful actors believe they are behaving nobly: meting out justice where it is due.