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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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.
The new NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock is now offering the documentary A Most Beautiful Thing as a free feature. (Details here.) Last week I wrote about the movie, and its surprising timeliness and power, in this article. The film, based on a memoir by Arshay Cooper, is the saga of young men from the West Side of Chicago who in the 1990s formed what appears to have been the first all-Black high-school rowing team in the country.
In response, Peter Gadzinski, previously of Vermont but now living in Europe, writes about the themes of the book and movie, and how different this sport can seem from another country’s perspective.
Through my son I have been introduced to rowing, and it is a great sport.
We have been living in Portugal, where my wife is from, and where our son is going to school, and they have a slightly different take on rowing here that I wish was in America.
First, none of the schools have any sports teams. Sports teams are all organized by town clubs. That means that the whole town can cover the expense, and you can be in the club from literally 8 years old to 80. There is none of this sports-stops-cold when you graduate high school or college. Also, the rowing club out here is open to anyone, with a just fee of $40 a month which is waived for those who can’t afford it, which makes the otherwise very expensive sport of rowing available to everyone.
The other thing here is that they race in all of the types of boats: singles, doubles, fours, and the eight, with one and two oar boats in the doubles and fours. I grew up playing soccer, and like most team sports, it is all about only the first string playing, and everyone else sitting on the bench. By racing in all boat classes, in a meet here it is like a track meet, in that everyone races. Everyone knows what the club “A” boat is, but everyone races in a meet.
The saying is that you put your best and your worst people in the single. The best so that they are not slowed up by lesser people in a multiple seat boat, and the worst, so they don’t slow up anyone in a multiple seat boat. But in a big meet everyone races, from the kids in elementary school, to the “veterans”: the gray haired adults, with even special boats with outriggers for the handicapped. This thing in America where in college it is all about getting a “crew” seat in “the 8” doesn’t exist here, which is good.
But as you pointed out, there is something special and unique about rowing. Once you get past both the expense of it and the preppy reputation of it, there is something very special about it. The way I explain it to people is that the only comparable activity would be to play music in a classical or jazz quartet. You become one group, all together and synchronized. Except in rowing you are breathing a lot harder. It is really something to behold, and something to be part of.
Not only are rowers in perfect mental and physical synchronization when rowing, but due to the extreme motion of their bodies back and forth they are like birds in flight and breathe in and out with their body movements. That means that the entire boat is breathing together as well. There is supposed to be something beneficial to singing together. Rowing together is the same, except with a lot more horsepower.
I had grown up thinking rowing was just some bizarre preppy thing for rich kids. It still is in a lot of America, but in Europe it is a lot more common and public. If I were a billionaire philanthropist I would put all of my money into paying for rowing clubs all over the country. It is a really good thing to do. As the saying goes: “Rowing is a sport, everything else is a game.” Get a bunch of young people to give their all and literally all pull together is a wonderful thing. There should be more of it.
Update: Another reader, with a military-aviation background, writes in with another comparison:
When reading The Boys in the Boat. I was struck by how much rowing reminded me of flying close formation aerobatics with the Blue Angels. I’m giving copies to my former wingmen for Christmas
This week, NBCUniversal’s new Peacock streaming service will begin showing the feature-length documentary A Most Beautiful Thing. A trailer of the film is on Vimeo here, and the main site for the project is here. I saw a preview version last week and recommend it. The film’s story would be surprising and engrossing at any time, but it has a current power and relevance its producers could not have foreseen when they began making it.
The film is based on a book of the same name by Arshay Cooper, first self-published as Suga Water five years ago. In it, Cooper—who grew up in a violent and drug- and gang-dominated neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago—described the formation of what appears to be the first all-Black high school rowing team, including members of rival gangs who gathered at Chicago’s Manley high school (officially the Manley Career Academy High School).
The high school and college rowing world has been the subject of celebrated books ranging from David Halberstam’s The Amateurs to Craig Lambert’s Mind Over Water to the perennially best-selling The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. As these books and other rowing chronicles indicate, participants in the sport have been overwhelmingly white. In class terms, rowing has also had a strong but not complete prep-school/upper-class tone. Strong, because of signature races like the Oxford-Cambridge and Harvard-Yale showdowns. Not complete, because—as Boys in the Boat, especially, points out—some successful rowers have been from modest, rural, working-class, or other non-fancy backgrounds, and have converted their aptitude for this sport into college scholarships the way basketball or football players have done. (Of course without the pro-career prospects to follow.)
But the story Arshay Cooper recounts is far starker and more dramatic. Manley high school had never had a rowing team; the students who finally agreed to join the boat were from rival gangs and in other circumstances would have been fighting with one another; few of them even knew how to swim. Basketball and football were sports for real men. Rowing? They were mocked by many of their Black schoolmates—and by many of the white rowers whose world they tried to join. On one of the Manley crew’s first forays onto the water in Chicago, all of its rowers were wearing life jackets, which was one of many reasons they were the object of sneers from the all-white high school and college crews also on the water.
“I notice that most rowers are white, tall, and lean,” Cooper writes in the book about an early visit to a boathouse. “I am none of these things.” The first time their all-novice, non-swimmer boat goes on the water, after long training in indoor tanks, Arshay Cooper and his teammates are terrified:
I push with everything I have [against the dock] and we glide out into open water. My triumph is immediately followed by fear as the boat starts to drift away. It’s not even close to being balanced.
“Blades flat on the water and oars pressed against the oarlocks,” Coach Jessica shouts.
“No, no, take me back in,” Dashaun yells. His panic is contagious, and everyone starts freaking out …
Coach Jessica tries to quiet us and instructs Alvin and me to row first, but we tell her we can’t. We are too afraid.
What happens to the members of that crew—in the 1990s, and now—is the subject of the book and the new movie. I won’t spoil the story they have to tell. But I will say that through the vehicle of a niche-seeming sport, both the book and the film address issues of generations-long racial trauma, and relations between Black residents and the police, that are the center of attention now.
The most obviously 2020-relevant aspect of the movie is its immersion in the racial divide within Chicago and America as a whole. All the young men who made up the Manley crew had childhoods marked by crime, poverty, drug use, and discrimination. “When Alvin and Arshay drove me around their old neighborhood, they showed me the block-by-block topography of the different gangs there,” Mary Mazzio told me. Mazzio, herself a former Olympic rower, is a documentary maker and the writer, director, and producer of this film. “They told me there was no safe way to get to school. The concept of ‘inequality of safety’ began to dawn on me.”
The family stories in Cooper’s book, bolstered by many interviews in the film (especially with the rowers’ mothers), explore countless other realms of inequality. The movie’s final section, which I’ll let you learn about yourself, explores the tensions between Black families and the mainly white police force in a surprising way. The movie was completed last year but is very much of this moment.
The other quietly emerging theme in the movie involves the sport of rowing itself—not its class and racial signifiers, but the physical action of people pulling together on their oars.
As The Boys in the Boat and other books have emphasized, a crew in a racing shell may represent the most profound expression of teamwork in all of sports. It is possible for one rower to make an error that penalizes the whole boat. This is by “catching a crab,” or digging an oar too deep in the water and being unable to pull it out. And it is possible for a coxswain to make a costly mistake in steering the boat or pacing the rowers.
But otherwise, which is the great majority of the time, a team wins or loses utterly together, as a group. Their collective effort either is enough to beat the other teams, or it falls short. There is no I in crew—a variation on the cliché used by coaches in every sport, but especially true here. “We were able to get rival gang members together in a single boat,” Arshay Cooper told me when I spoke with him last week. “We hated each other, and we became like brothers.” As the last part of the film reveals, he has tried to extend that team-building possibility across the chasm of suspicion separating his Black neighborhood from the police.
Beyond teamwork, the mechanics of the sport proved important to Cooper and his teammates. “I grew up with a lot of trauma,” he told me. “Gunshots in our sleep, being chased home right after school, gangs everywhere.” Like many neighborhood boys, he grew up playing basketball. “But it’s a trash-talking sport. ‘You suck,’ ‘you are garbage’—it triggers a lot of trauma.” He played football, “and the coach is always saying, ‘Knock ‘em dead.’” When he got in a boat, he discovered, “it was non-combative, a non-conflict sport. It took me out of the neighborhood for a while. I could focus on the person sitting in front of me, and the person behind me, on developing that magical rhythm, together.” The swing and timing and unison of a boat, Cooper said, “really calmed the storm—rather than other sports, where the storm came out of me.”
Where will this all lead? Mary Mazzio said that she hoped philanthropy spurred by the film (“so many of today’s captains of industry have at some point picked up an oar”) could help make the sport more accessible. “The limiting factor is infrastructure—getting to the water, and to oars, boats, ergs.” “Ergs,” or ergometers, are the land-based rowing machines, of which the best known is the Concept 2. As Arshay Cooper put it, “You can walk to a basketball court, but you can’t just walk to a rowing site.”
“So many kids play basketball or football as a way out,” Mazzio said. Those rich, top-end opportunities for a handful of star athletes will never be matched by crew. But for admirable reasons and shadier ones, rowing has, especially for women, become an edge in college scholarships and admissions.
“This beautiful film shines light on the kinds of education experiences that launch kids into lives of purpose,” Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist who has written extensively about education, told me. “The rowing program gets kids excited about school, while the entrepreneurship program equips them with essential career skills.”
“Maybe this year there are 500 Black rowers at the high-school level,” Arshay Cooper told me. “I’m hoping that in five years, it’s 5,000, or more.” He says that he has been making the rounds of high schools and colleges discussing why this collaborative, disciplined, “meditative” form of competition is especially valuable for people surrounded by trauma. “The biggest lesson I learned is, I can’t do the work of eight people,” he said. “But I need eight people to do the work.”
You’ll see the experience that view comes from, if you watch the film.
Here is one more item about a bellwether business category that until recently had been an indicator of downtown renewal and locally focused entrepreneurship—and which now is figuring out how and whether it can survive.
I am talking about the small, independent, start-up breweries and distilleries whose numbers have increased by the thousands in the past decade—but many of whose members are now just trying to hang on.
The newest companies are the most vulnerable. Those that survive are usually drawing on at least a few years of market awareness, built-up savings, and civic support to get through these bleak times.
Adaptability is everything. Start canning and selling beer you previously dispensed via taps. Move operations outdoors. Make hand sanitizer (although even that market has drastically changed.) Do whatever it takes.
Embrace the “shift to quality.” As people are spending less time and money in bars and restaurants, some of them are “buying up” to higher-level food and drink to have at home.
Recognize long-standing sources of friction. Antiquated distributorship laws, described here and here, had for years been a nuisance for small businesses. With the pandemic, they became a life-or-death threat. Shortages and soaring prices of aluminum cans, labels, and canning machinery suddenly were crucial to whether small businesses could last this collapse.
Now, two more brief reports, from different kinds of small businesses in different parts of the country. One is a small, relatively young taproom-based operation in Pensacola, Florida. The other is a longer-established independent brewery with wide distribution in California. Each underscores some of the previous principles and illustrates new ones.
Perfect PlaininPensacola, Florida: Almost three years ago, the Perfect Plain brewing company opened in a still-reviving part of downtown Pensacola, the westernmost city on the Florida panhandle. The name came from a locally famous description that Rachel Jackson had given the region in 1821, when her husband, Andrew, was the incoming governor of Florida. “Pensacola is a perfect plain,” she wrote to a friend. “The town is immediately on the bay, the most beautiful water prospect I ever saw … There is something in it so exhilarating, so pure, so wholesome, it enlivens the whole system.”
The city has long had an economic bulwark in the nearby Naval Air Station, and of course its beach and resort areas, as well as a deliberately nurtured and increasingly popular arts-and-events scene. Its downtown has followed the retail, restaurant, and residential pattern of revitalization we have seen in many other cities. Part of that downtown growth was the opening of the Perfect Plain’s taproom, downtown on East Garden Street, in November 2017.
I visited Pensacola, to take part in its CivicCon public-discussion series, a few months after Perfect Plain opened. Naturally I made the taproom part of my inspection tour of the town (along with the stadium for the Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team, which has been put to creative use during the pandemic). I talked then, and have stayed in touch since, with D.C. Reeves, a Pensacola native and former sportswriter in his mid-30s. He co-founded Perfect Plain (with Reed Odeneal) in 2017, and has since written a how-to handbook for aspiring microbrewery entrepreneurs.
Over the next two-plus years, the business grew fast; Reeves hired more staff (17 people, from the original 8), and Perfect Plain leased more space for expansion. Pensacola was on the rise as a resort destination. Although the brewery’s only sales were (by choice) through its own taproom, rather than through retail or restaurant distribution, by early this year Perfect Plain had entered the top quartile of overall beer production in the state.
But what happens now, when the very elements of a downtown brewery’s success—crowds in the taproom, live events, drop-in traffic from tourists or ballgame crowds or shoppers strolling the downtown—are gone or diminished?
When I talked with Reeves last week, he repeated some themes I’ve heard and reported on elsewhere. For instance, he told me that his company was in better shape than some other, newer outlets, because it had nearly three years to build its brand and generate community support. And all-fronts scrambling, he said, was an expected part of the start-up path.
“There is this built-in creativity to the business,” he said. “If you have a brewery, or want to open a brewery, you know you’re going to have to claw and fight and create to keep a business alive.” He and his team ramped up sales of canned beer-to-go; they produced and sold hand sanitizer, the profits from which went directly to the staff. The company’s scrambling had been centered on trying to minimize layoffs. Perfect Plain received about $90,000 in PPP grants and devoted it all to staff salaries. Those funds expired in June. Since July, Reeves and Odeneal have reduced their own salaries to zero.
And, as we had heard elsewhere, Reeves underscored that the craft-brew business had always been volatile. The current crisis, coupled with an already impending plateau of craft-beer saturation, was weeding out any company without a sound business strategy—in addition to penalizing others that simply had not had enough time to establish their brands.
But he also mentioned a distinctive Florida aspect: the “magical hotdog,” or plate of food.
Florida’s handling of the COVID-19 threat has been, at best … well, you can fill in the adjective. One of its regulatory aspects was a bright-line distinction between “restaurants” and “bars.” In the closings-and-openings of businesses across the state, enterprises officially classified as restaurants were at first treated like bars, both of which were closed down. Then restaurants were given much more leeway to reopen while bars remained closed. Since restaurant owners were also desperately doing whatever they could to survive, the result was an additional challenge for businesses like Reeves’s.
“What we’ve seen is, in effect, restaurants becoming bars,” Reeves told me. “You can sit outside and have drinks all afternoon, but if you’ve got that plate of jalapeño poppers, it’s ‘safe’”—because you’re in a “restaurant.” The same drinks with the same spacing on a similar outdoor patio, minus the jalapeño poppers, would mean you were in a “bar,” which was supposed to be shut down. “The rules put a brewery like ours, with expansive square footage to space people out, in the same category as a boom-boom room in Miami,” Reeves said.
Because their business plan was based solely on sales on their own premises, closing the taproom initially cut off their entire revenue stream. “But it was a different market when everyone was closed down”—that is, bars and restaurants alike. “We could capitalize on having an exclusive product and do the things breweries know how to do”—including to-go sales of canned beer. “We’ve been ready to wash cars, deliver on an ice-cream truck, do whatever it takes,” Reeves said. But when the restaurants were opened and the bars were not, revenues plunged once again. “It’s hard to convince someone to pick up a can of beer to go when they can sit on a restaurant patio and drink all day and night as if it’s a bar,” Reeves told me in an email.
What was the answer? The civics-course response was an open letter from Florida’s craft brewers to the governor, asking for comparable treatment to restaurants. Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (which oversees brewery and liquor licenses), responded with a tour of small breweries around the state, including a stop in the Florida panhandle. He heard from Perfect Plain and its counterparts about strategies for reopening, and what to do in the case of another spike. After the trip, Reeves told me, “we felt heard by Halsey,” and new plans may be in store.
In the meantime, the scramble-for-survival answer was to convert their taproom into a “restaurant” as quickly as possible, a trend rapidly spreading statewide. (Here is a Pensacola News Journal report on the ways bars were rushing to obtain “restaurant” licenses.) “Hot dogs, hummus, chips and salsa—we’ve got it!” Reeves said. Just inviting a food truck wouldn’t qualify for a restaurant license. (Florida has since allowed it if the truck’s permanent address is the brewery/bar) But the Perfect Plain building had a sink and kitchen equipment in a back room. “We worked full bore for about seven days to get it all ready, and get our plan set for review..” Hotdogs, hummus — “We’ll do what it takes.”
Almanac in Alameda, California: Almanac’s story differs from that of Perfect Plain in several obvious ways. Almanac is nine years old, versus nearly three for Perfect Plain. From the start it has been based in the prospering and food-and-drink conscious San Francisco Bay area, rather than in a town of 50,000 close to the Florida-Alabama border. And comparatively little of its business has been made up of direct sales through its own taproom, compared with distribution through other outlets. (For the record: One of my sons, an Almanac customer in California, has invested in the company.)
But the sharpest difference is how Almanac has fared through the pandemic. While most food-and-beverage outlets are scrambling to make it week by week, Almanac just had its best quarter ever.
Why, and how? I asked Damian Fagan, a design specialist and longtime homebrew enthusiast who, with Jesse Friedman, co-founded Almanac in 2011. The name was explicitly based on the venerable Farmer’s Almanac, and was meant to signal the farm-to-table (or in this case, farm-to-tap) spirit of the company’s operations.
“The idea is to have ‘Northern California in a bottle,’” Fagan told me. “Farmers’ markets here are open 52 weeks a year. There is always a cornucopia of delicious agricultural offerings we can use.” Fagan pointed out that the farm-to-table ethos had made restaurants proud of describing where their tomatoes were grown and how chickens or cattle had been raised. “Beer is 100 percent an agricultural product, but people weren’t paying attention to it in that way.”
In Almanac’s first few years of operation, before it had its own brewery, it specialized in “sours” and fruit-based beers, made under contract by local brewers. “Given where we are geographically, we have access to fruit year round.” Sours, which are aged in oaken wine barrels, now constitute about 30 percent of the company’s business. At one point it had a taproom in San Francisco, which has closed. Shortly before the pandemic it opened a sizable brewery and taproom in a former aircraft hangar near the former Alameda Naval Air Station, in the East Bay.
“When the first shelter-in-place order [for California] was delivered, in mid-March, we panicked, like most people,” Fagan told me. “We had to shutter our tap room, which had become a big part of our business.” The phone started ringing—with calls from wholesalers and other distributors canceling their orders, or greatly reducing their scale.
“We wondered, is the sky falling?” Fagan said. The key to survival, he told me, was “to be nimble and adaptive.” Every business would use those words, but Fagan laid out what that meant, specifically, for his company.
“The first thing we did, within 72 hours, was to spin up an online beer store—a direct-to-consumer channel that we had not had before.” People anywhere in California can now order their beer online, for delivery to their homes. Almanac pushed online sales hard in its social-media outlets. Business through this new channel grew rapidly, and according to Fagan “went a very long way in filling the giant hole caused by closing the tap room.”
Almanac also quickly ramped up to-go sales of canned beer, from its Alameda brewery. Last year Almanac had invested in its own canning line; this meant it could avoid some of the problems other breweries encountered in trying to shift rapidly to takeaway sales. Recently I described how the Bent Paddle brewery, in Duluth, Minnesota, had made tough COVID-era safety standards part of its brand. Almanac took a similar approach. It had customers stand in line; it set up contactless pick-up; “we really dialed in on ways for people to feel safe,” Fagan said. “The irony is, when we combine to-go sales with the online store, we’re actually generating more revenue through our taproom with it being closed, than when it was open.” Almanac’s overall revenues for the first half of this year are about 10 percent higher than for last year—even with the near-disappearance of its taproom and restaurant sales.
Almanac has one other enormous advantage: Just weeks before the pandemic, its distributor made a deal with Safeway, which means its beers will be carried in some 170 Safeway stores in Northern California, along with some other retail outlets. Last month I quoted Jim Koch, of Sam Adams in Boston, on the make-or-break, life-or-death power that distributors have over many start-ups in this industry. Fagan said that Almanac, which had had difficult distributor relationships in the past, was now on the good side of that divide—“which allowed us to get this massive placement all at once.”
Sales through distributors now account for most of Almanac’s revenue. And in these stores, the company is now benefiting from the same “flight to quality”/“trading up” process mentioned before. “Instead of buying a four-pack of beer in the store, they may buy a case,” Fagan said—and of fancier products, like his. “People are buying in higher volumes, and drinking at home more.” The public-health aspects of this part of the pandemic are still to be understood. As a business trend, it is keeping some small companies alive.
Are these the biggest business and civic stories of America’s current disastrous dislocations? Of course they are not. But the rise of small, locally minded restaurants, coffee shops, bars, breweries, and other gathering places has been an important element in many cities’ growth in the past decade. Whether, and how, small businesses like these survive is important too.
A year ago, I published a piece in the print magazine about that long-standing object of American fascination, the Roman Empire. Usually, and usefully, Americans have over the centuries looked to Rome for guidance on how their nation could avoid the predictable slide from republic to empire to conquest and dissolution. My favorite in this genre is the wonderful 2007 book Are We Rome?, by my friend (and Atlantic colleague) Cullen Murphy.
But for last year’s piece I discussed some other books, arguing that what happened to Rome after the fall of the Western empire is what Americans should be studying. Especially in this era when central government—leadership on the imperial scale, you might say—was faltering, and when our counterparts to the Roman provinces (that is, our cities and states and regions) were by comparison so much more practical-minded and functional.
My friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, wrote a response that highlighted some additional areas of useful comparison between the America of our time and the Rome of yesteryear. Now he is back with an extension of his argument. He calls this dispatch “From Sulla to Sullen: What the Fall of the Roman Republic Tells Us About Where Trump Is Taking Us.” I think it is instructive and worth reading, and with his permission I quote it below.
Schnurer began by directing attention away from the end of the empire, and instead to:
… the approaching decline of the Roman Republic, a half-millennium earlier. As I wrote last year, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence” all looked “a lot like the present moment to me.” I was thinking of the period dominated by the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers—a tag-team somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren —roughly a century before the Republic’s ultimate fall into dictatorship.
I hardly expected then that within about half a year, Donald Trump would manage to fast-forward the country through half acentury of Roman history, to the doorstep of the Civil Wars that destroyed what little was left of Republican Rome.
Of course, no historical analogy is exact. The collapse of the Republic was brought on by a combination of structural flaws in its politics and governance, and the self-serving ambitions of ruthless individuals that exploited them. While the causes were many, inter-related, and complex, at their root was a system that defied any notion of the common good and was devoid of political means to resolve rather than exacerbate division.
The Republic was the creation of a tight-knit oligarchy that had overthrown the preceding monarchy and, as a result, held a deep-seated determination never again to allow any one individual to accumulate so much power as to overawe all others.
The solution was not so much a separation of powers, as we conceive of it—officials simultaneously played executive, legislative and even judicial roles—as a vast multiplicity of individuals who could hold their posts only once, and for only a year. But this was no “citizen’s republic”: A small coterie of privileged families held almost all these offices and voting was severely limited.
Moreover, the term republic—from the Latin for “a thing of the public”—was meant to distinguish it from a monarchy, which was essentially the personal property of the ruler in which other people simply happened to live. But the Roman Republic was more like what we might think of as a “publicly held corporation” and, essentially, treated as private property. Officials used public office to profit personally and directly (and openly).
Of course, it takes money to make money, so only the very wealthy could afford to pursue these rewards because, along the way, they were expected personally to pay for the lavish spectacles, such as the famous gladiatorial games, that sated the public, as well as major public works and public building projects. The Roman state, in short, while ostensibly “public,” had long since been thoroughly privatized.
This state was essentially an increasingly imperial business enterprise, in the guise of a government. The expanding conquests, which were basically run as profit centers, undercut the working populations in the city through a growing influx of slave labor, and drove rural residents off their land through collapsing agricultural prices due to burgeoning grain imports—the automation and offshoring of their day.
These developments nonetheless personally benefited the wealthy Senatorial and governing elite that wielded government power increasingly for the sole private benefit of its members. This led to spiraling social tensions that, when they flared into violence, were resolved through grudging concessions rather than fundamental—and democratizing—changes.
The “radical” Warren-esque reforms of the Gracchis, who themselves were highly patrician, arguably aimed to save their own class from themselves as much as saving the Republic, by creating economic safety valves not unlike the patrician Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal at the depths of the Great Depression. The elites were too selfish, or shortsighted, or both, to see the wisdom—resulting in a violent uprising of the dispossessed known as “the Social War.” Conceptions of a greater good shared broadly amongst a frontier people who had thrown off their king, and came together especially in times of external threat, had long since melted away before the pursuit of personal wealth and power. Politics could no longer bridge the divides, because the threat did not come from without: The enemy was the other within.
In this res public largely eviscerated of any sense of the “public,” politics and government increasingly degenerated further into the personal. Wealthy politicians vied for, and alternated in power, with the support of their own personal parties, armed factions, and the communications media of the day (Julius Caesar, with his Commentaries on his subjugation of Gaul, was a master of this). By a half-century after the Gracchis’ reforms were beaten back, extremely different visions of governing structure, social issues, and economics eventually confronted each other for power in the form of essentially personalized states built largely around either Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
And that might be where we find ourselves today. While the political parallels are far from perfect, Marius, hardly a blameless figure, personified the cause of the populares—what we might think of as more-or-less progressive, advocating for an expanded democracy and economic redistribution. Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives, prevailed and eventually became dictator.
While Roman politics had long been a nasty affair, Sulla was the first to institutionalize “proscription”—the practice of declaring your opponents “enemies of the state” and thereby licensing open-hunting season on them. He also became the first ever to violate perhaps the most deeply held norm of the Republic’s unwritten constitution—that no general was ever to lead armed forces across the sacred boundary, the pomerium, of Rome itself—which set the precedent for Julius Caesar’s later, and more famous, crossing of the Rubicon that all but marked the end of the Republic, and Rome’s imperfect democracy, for good.
Now, within the last month, President Trump has sent armed forces into American cities—but not the regular armed forces, as he has mooted in the past. He didn’t call up the National Guard, as presidents normally do when responding to emergencies or civil unrest: With military leaders and some troops themselves publicly expressing discomfort after their use against peaceful protests in Washington, DC, Trump needed to find forces more personally loyal to himself—and he did so in the Customs and Border Patrol—outside any existing branch of the military, responding directly to his agenda, arguably beyond his constitutional authority, and targeting dissent ...
But, as is often the case with Trump, creation of this new praetorian guard can alternatively be understood as essentially a business, rather than an ideological, development—simply a further, if more disturbing, extension of his privatization and personalization of the federal government. The fact that this new model army displays no government agency’s insignia on its personnel or vehicles—relying instead on widely available camouflage rather than government uniforms—means that private militias and vigilantes can easily join forces with it, or even take actions on their own, indistinguishable from these new-fangled government irregulars. As I predicted when Trump first took office, the distinction between public and private sectors is melting away before our very eyes even as to the deployment of legitimate force that, ever since the great sociologist Max Weber, has been seen as the defining element of the state.
Many have expressed concerns for some time that Trump would attempt to remain in office if he were defeated, and might rally armed militias to his cause (I’ve raised this concern myself since the night Trump was elected) … But even if he does leave, the likely Trump post-presidency that fits best with his personality and history—not to mention that of the Romans—may be even more troubling and dangerous.
Trump, if he were to lose, might well leave the White House—he never liked the building to begin with, and doesn’t like the actual work of the presidency—but never concede that he lost. He might not be the real President anymore … but he could play one on TV. If he continued to insist that he were the actual, legitimate President of the United States, there can be little doubt that tens of millions of Americans would believe him. And unlike your average crank, Trump has the resources and ability to turn this into a 24/7 TV reality program through his own television network, even further to the right and more reliably sycophantic than Fox—which he reportedly was considering launching had he not, unexpectedly, won the 2016 election.
Imagine an alternative President, with at least as much media reach as the one actually in the White House, with an unshakably devoted following of perhaps as much as one-third of the country, and perhaps even his own private armed forces—Sulla with a TV station funded by his fellow reactionary patricians, with his own camo-clad stormtroopers picking up and disappearing populare protestors in unmarked vans—and the present looks even more like the late Republic than when I wrote about this less than a year ago. If this occurs, the country would descend into dueling polities, dueling realities, and dueling war zones.
Of course, there are always alternatives: As dysfunctional as the Republic had become, Rome didn’t necessarily need a Caesar. But it did need a modernization of its pre-imperial governance technology—a standing bureaucracy and a streamlined executive to carry out the legislative will would have improved on the existing multi-headed oligarchy at least as well as the succession of terrible emperors did. And a peaceful mechanism for resolving the increasingly disparate interests of Rome’s increasingly disparate and unwieldy empire—broadened and meaningful democracy, for instance, along with progressive economic policies and perhaps a Plebeian Lives Matter movement—might have averted a half-millennium of dictatorship dominated not by orderly succession but factional assassinations and coups until even the Empire eventually conceded it couldn’t manage the job and simply partitioned itself.
We face similar choices today. History isn’t destiny. But it is a warning.
What is the most effective thing an individual can do about climate change? There are lots of possible answers: what you eat, how you vote, where and how you live, how you travel, and so on. All of them matter. For Americans, at this moment, the one that matters most may be how you vote.
But among the steps most immediately within many people’s control, an important one is planting trees. Yes, there are cautions about doing this in the wrong way, or in the wrong places, or in ignoring the legacies of long-standing biases in zoning and city planning. (That is: It’s easy to plant trees in spacious residential neighborhoods; it’s harder when there’s only a narrow strip of ground between the street and a building front.) But overall, step-by-step reforestation can potentially be a significant help, which is why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling a number of local efforts toward that end.
I am chagrined to say that until I looked into it, I had no idea that the second-largest city in the nation—Los Angeles, with its population of nearly 4 million people spread out over roughly 500 square miles—has a very ambitious program to use tree planting as an axis to connect job creation, climate sustainability, urban renewal, and economic equity and inclusion. (Perhaps it would have helped if I’d read at least the headline of a very good Mother Jones story by Jackie Flynn Mogensen last year. The headline was, “Los Angeles, a City Known for Its Freeways, Is About to Plant a Shit Ton of Trees.”)
As it happened, I learned about the LA program largely by accident. The smallish Southern California town of Redlands had set an also-ambitious goal, of helping school children there plant more than 12,000 trees, which I wrote about when it was announced last year. The seedlings were purchased; a computerized way to map and track each one’s progress was set; and they were supposed to be passed out to school children on Earth Day this past April. That plan naturally hit a roadblock when California schools were shut down. As an alternative, the backers of the effort, including the University of Redlands and the tech company Esri, managed to give away thousands of trees in June. But still some 4,000 seedling trees went unclaimed.
Mainly through the efforts of our friend Shelli Stockton, of the University of Redlands, those little trees ended up last month in the hands of an organization called City Plants in Los Angeles (as shown in this video). City Plants, a program of the LA city government, is part of a broader LA effort toward radical expansion of the “urban forest” cover in this famously sunbaked part of the world.
I talked this week with Rachel O’Leary, a native Angeleno who now directs City Plants, and with Rachel Malarich, a longtime expert in urban forestry who last year was named LA’s first-ever City Forest Officer. Here is what they told me about what they are doing, and why it might matter elsewhere.
How City Plants started: Last year, in presenting his “Green New Deal” vision for the city (which you can download in full PDF version here), Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti set out a tree-planting campaign as one element of a larger sustainability-and-jobs strategy. The plan set a target to “plant and maintain” at least 90,000 trees across the city by 2021, and to keep planting trees at a rate of 20,000 per year. This was largely initially based on the “Million Trees” initiative under Garcetti’s predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but has evolved over the past decade to focus on planting the "right tree in the right place." Garcetti's Green New Deal also was explicitly focused on “canopy equity”—that is, of extending more of the benefits of large-tree cover to neighborhoods that are now typified by asphalt and concrete rather than greenery.
What it does: The City Plants program, as part of the larger urban-forestry program, offers trees to residents of Los Angeles at no cost. Angelenos can get up to seven free “yard trees” for their own property, which they are expected to plant and care for themselves (with instructions like those shown in this picture). They can also request free “street trees,” which a City Plants team will plant for them. (Residents must agree to water the trees for five years.)
For the labor involved in planting and handling the trees, City Plants coordinates with a variety of nonprofit and neighborhood groups —of which its major partner is the LA Conservation Corps. This LACorps is designed to give young people workplace skills, while they work on projects of larger community value.
How is it financed? From a variety of public and private sources (info here), but mainly by LA’s main public utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or LADWP. Long-standing policy in California requires utility companies to underwrite energy-efficiency programs, including tree planting. LADWP has supported tree planting and innovations in urban forestry in Los Angeles for over a decade. The rationale for including trees as energy-savers, which you can find in longer and more detailed form here, is not just that tree growth stores carbon directly, as the trees mature. It is also that leafed-out tree cover reduces electricity and water use, especially the demand for air-conditioning. With support from LADWP, City Plants has an online calculator in which residents enter their street address, and get estimates of energy-bill savings from planting trees, in real time.
“Trees are one of the least expensive, and most powerful, tools we have for improving our environment,” Rachel Malarich told me. “More and more research is showing how important a good, healthy tree canopy cover is for our communities as a whole—and how important it will be not just for our health right now but for our resilience in the face of a changing climate.” (Malarich went into more detail on these features in the Mother Jones interview.)
The program’s other ambitions: The 90,000-tree program concentrates on the parts of LA that are now the least forested and most parched. These are of course generally the lowest-income areas, and the most likely to become broiling “heat islands” because of climate change. The official goal, set out in the Green New Deal document, is to “Increase tree canopy in areas of greatest need by at least 50% by 2028 to grow a more equitable urban forest that provides cooling, public health, habitat, energy savings, and other benefits.”
I asked Rachel Malarich how that would be possible, considering that many areas now short on trees are also short on space to plant them. The extensive suburban-style portions of Los Angeles were designed to include leafy glades; others have barely an unpaved square inch to support plant growth.
“Trees need space to grow, and much of our infrastructure was set up not to allow that space,” Malarich said. “Frequently in these high-need areas you’ll only have a four-foot-wide parkway, where you can only plant a small tree. Or there are overhead power lines.” I asked, given these realities, how the city could realistically expect to equalize tree coverage across the city. It would be complex, and hard, and would involve short- and long-term creativity and planning, she said. But that was the deadline the city’s plan set out, “putting our feet to the fire.”
Does it matter outside LA? The scale of Los Angeles makes anything that happens there consequential in its own right. But Rachel O’Leary argued that the partnership model—connecting different parts of the city and state government, and linking job-training and community-justice initiatives to climate sustainability—would be “replicable and scalable in other places.”
“Trees are a powerful tool of climate resilience,” she said. “This is definitely one of the most powerful actions a resident can take, to take climate change into their own hands. That it is how we view it here in this city. And we would encourage other cities to develop partnerships like these.”
“We’re not the only city that is dealing with this,” Rachel Malarich said. “If we can figure out this way of dealing with this issue of tree canopy inequity, we will have figured out something for other people to look at and learn from.”
Is any of this “the” answer, for neighborhood justice, civic engagement, and climate sustainability. Obviously not. But it could well be part of an answer, in this large city and elsewhere.
Over the years, I’ve frequently mentioned my friend Michael Jones, a computer scientist and geography whiz. Nine years ago, he was a leading figure in my Atlantic story “Hacked,” the saga of what my wife Deb and I learned when her email account was taken over by international hackers. For an Atlantic column around the same time, I interviewed him on the way omnipresent, always-available mapping was likely to change people’s habits and lives. And before any of this, he had added to world knowledge with his explanation of “Boiled Frog” science. As he laid out in this guest post, careful experiments in 19th-century Germany established that a frog would indeed sit still in a pot of ever-hotter water—but only if its brain had already been removed.
Outside our household, Michael Jones is known, among other things, as one of the guiding forces behind Google Earth and Google Maps. When you see your neighborhood, or your planet, from above on a computer, or follow turn-by-turn directions on your phone, he is one of the people you have to thank.
The 2020 Patron’s Medal has been awarded to Michael Jones for his contribution to the development of geospatial information.
Baroness Chalker said: “Michael Jones is a role model for future generations of geographers. From his beginnings as a software engineer, inventing and filing his own patents, through to his role as Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, his inspiring career trajectory is charted by his vision to redefine mapping from static lines and symbols to an interactive geographical web of context and information. It’s hard to overstate the importance that Google Earth and Google Maps has had on the public worldwide and how Michael’s pioneering work has democratised and popularised cartography and spatial awareness. Today we recognise his extraordinary contribution and his continued advocacy for the benefits of geography. He whole heartedly deserves the Society’s highest recognition.”
Michael Jones said: “This recognition is a signal honour for an idea that started in my head and which, through the work of many, resulted in the Google Earth used by billions of people around the world. On behalf of colleagues who laboured to make this dream of Earth and Maps a reality, and in full credit to the inspiring attainments of all who have come before us in the quest to better understand the Earth, I can only say that the ‘Earth-in-your-hand’ idea has never had a greater friend than the Royal Geographical Society, to whom we humbly offer our gratitude.”
As a fellow Yank, I will razz Michael for writing “signal honour”—but it couldn’t be more deserved, with the British u or without. Congratulations. And you can read more about his story and outlook in this interview.
Earlier this week I mentioned the surprisingly important role that craft brewing had played in downtown renewal across the country over the past decade. And I talked with one of the pioneers of that movement, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company, about how this part of America’s startup economy was likely to fare.
Here are reports from two companies of a similar spirit but entirely different scale from Koch’s nationally distributed Samuel Adams brand. One is in northern Minnesota; the other, on the edge of the Mojave desert in Southern California. Each illustrates a path small, locally conscious firms are taking to survive the current economic and public health disaster.
Duluth, Minnesota: Over the past four years, I’ve visited and written about the small Bent Paddle Brewing Company of Duluth—and have retained interest because the saga of this startup has involved a lot more than its (very good) craft beer.
The two young couples who founded the company ten years ago—Karen and Bryon Tonnis, and Laura and Colin Mullen—wanted to see if their new little business could be part of a larger revival in the tattered, ex-industrial Lincoln Park district of Duluth. As Deb Fallows and I saw in repeat visits and reported here and here, they had begun succeeding in that neighborhood-revival role—plus others, like being part of a Duluth’s emergence as an outdoors and tourist destination, and helping protect the waters of deep, cold Lake Superior, on whose western tip Duluth sits.
Each time we’ve visited their part of town, we’ve seen a few more visitors, another restaurant or food truck, another little office or store. Meanwhile, Bent Paddle’s main business, as a taproom and brewery, continued to grow. Every time we talked, the four founders stressed that they’d grown mainly thanks to community supports (including advice from local business people and loans from local banks), so they felt an obligation to be part of the community’s long-term development.
But what now? This spring, Bent Paddle’s own taproom was of course closed, as were the restaurants and bars through which it sold most of its output. Could a little business like this survive, and could its surrounding neighborhood? This week I spoke with Laura Mullen in Duluth to ask how Bent Paddle had fared.
“During March and April our business was down about 50 percent,” she said. “No events at our site,” which had been an ever-busier civic gathering center. (We once saw a local-writer’s club holding a meeting in a side room.) “No sales to bars or restaurants,” which were about half of its total volume. “Draft beer was not happening anywhere.” Bent Paddle had to buy back some of the kegs it had shipped to bars and restaurants. Other kegs, already in warehouses, went past their shelf life and could no longer be sold.
Fortunately from the brewers’ point of view, Minnesota classified liquor stores as some of the “essential” businesses that could stay open despite a general lockdown. “That made us ‘essential workers,’” Mullen said, “because we were supplying products to liquor stores.”
Among the customers they could still reach in Duluth and elsewhere, Bent Paddle saw the same pattern that Jim Koch, of Sam Adams, recently described to me: People who would otherwise have gone out to a restaurant or bar were in many cases “trading up” to buy nicer food or drink to have at home, still for a lower overall cost. (A fascinating report in Nielsen.com shows exactly how much at-home drinking would have to increase to offset the near-elimination of bar and restaurant revenues. Medical experts are on the alert for evidence that increased home drinking is creating medical or behavioral risks—beyond those of the pandemic itself.)
Laura Mullen said that she expected this year’s sales, overall, to be about 20 percent lower than last year’s. Of the company’s 44 staff members before the shutdowns, it laid off 10. All but one has now returned. The company received a PPP loan to help cover the salaries. For the moment, Minnesota has allowed bars and restaurants to reopen for distanced outside service, and at 50 percent previous capacity indoor.
What were the lessons of this company’s survival, so far? Laura Mullen suggested these:
An immediate pivot: “When the taproom closed, we could still do to-go beer,” she said. “The minute [the state order] hit, after we shut the taproom we created all these signs and online videos,” promoting the idea that Bent Paddle was still open and explaining how to buy very safely canned beer to take home.
Going all-in on masks and distancing: None of the signs and videos that Bent Paddle put up were about resisting or working around the shutdown or distancing order. All were about how to work with the rules. On March 20, they posted a three-minute Facebook video in which Laura Mullen walked potential customers all through the stages of picking up beer safely from their brewery. “We get a few Yelp comments complaining about our procedures,” she told me. “But we got many more complimenting us and saying that our safety protocols were top-notch, and they could feel comfortable coming here.”
Reliance on the local: When I first met them, the four Bent Paddle founders told me how important local-bank support had been when they started the company. Laura Mullen said the same was true for surviving the current emergency. “A lot of people who had bigger-bank relationships had trouble getting their PPP loans,” she said. “We have a small local bank,” whose officers the company had worked with for years, “and we were able to get things arranged very quickly. We’ve heard that across the board, that people dealing with smaller banks are in better shape.”
Concern for the neighborhood: Bend Paddle’s success has been an important part of the Lincoln Park area’s revitalization. Now people are still coming to pick up beer, but not staying to shop in the little boutiques and smaller businesses. Their margins are thinner, and their products are less recession-proof than beer. Mullen said that she was even more concerned about longer-term effects on the neighborhood than on her own company.
Redlands, California: More than a dozen years ago, when I was living in China, I visited my original hometown of Redlands several times (for family-illness reasons) and noted the emergence of a craft-brew industry there. The pioneering local company was sited right at a small airport and was named, with an aviation theme, Hangar 24.
On recent visits to Redlands I’ve noted the emergence of a new company, called Escape Craft Brewery. It’s located in an unglamorous commercial complex not far from Interstate 10, but its vibe and style are of the tropical carefree getaway. “We designed the name Escape for that idea,” Melissa Fisher, who cofounded the brewery with her husband Josh six years ago, told me last week. “You can’t always get away. But you can always escape. You can sit outside, open a beer, and be someplace else for a few minutes.”
Before opening the company, Josh Fisher was an avid home brewer, with a day job as a firefighter. Melissa worked as an aesthetician in a salon. They spent two years scouting the area for an appropriate site—with parking, brewing space and facilities, affordable rent, appropriate zoning, outdoor patio space for the usually warm Southern California weather, and so on.
They found it in a modest storefront close to the I-10 freeway, amid discount stores and carpet-cleaning shops. Based mainly on the quality of their products, Escape’s beers and ambience grew in popularity. It expanded into a next-door property and had 10,000 square feet of space, about half of it for a tasting-room and taproom, and half for a game room where, according to Melissa Fisher, they also had live music, private parties, “dog adoptions” and other civic events. This August they had been planning to open a second site in Redlands, with renovation of an an abandoned warehouse building much closer to downtown. They were also preparing for an expansion to the resort-coastal city of Laguna Niguel.
In March, most of their business went away, all at once. No taproom traffic, which had been almost 80 percent of their total revenue. No private events, no live music, no community gatherings—and on top of that, no sales to the bars and restaurants that had been carrying Escape’s beers. “A couple of places even asked if they could send their kegs back,” Melissa Fisher said. “Usually that’s illegal, but the rules were lifted this time”—and they were legally able to re-package some of the product as “beer to go.”
How would they survive? “I think that if this had been in our first year or two, it would have been monumentally bad for us,” Melissa Fisher said. “We probably could not have made it.” But in Escape’s six years of operation, it had built a local following, and the Fishers had saved their profits to invest in their planned expansions (and instead are using them to cushion losses now).
Like Bent Paddle, Escape quickly shifted, mainly to take-out sales. Instead of draft beer poured into glasses in the tap rooms, they would sell beer in cans for customers to pick up. (Side note: a decade ago, I was surprised by the shift among craft brewers from glass bottles to aluminum cans. Now the shift is all but complete. I can barely remember the last time I bought beer that came in a bottle.) It quickly put up a website for online orders of to-go beer and saw many of its longtime customers make that change.
This kept the doors open, but with an unpleasant real-world surprise. In the previous post I mentioned the all-important role of something most beer customers are barely aware of: the beer-wholesalers business. In the case of Escape, the challenging practicality was how hard and expensive it could be for a small operation like theirs to try to switch to canned-beer sales.
Start with the cans themselves. “A big brewer might pay 8 or 10 cents per can,” Fisher said. Because they’re buying in small volume, “We’re paying somewhere between 34 and 74 cents per can, and that’s before we put the label on it”—or the beer into it. “Then you run into the shortages because there’s a rush on everything”—of cans, of labels, of glass growler bottles, of aluminum “crowler” cans. Before the pandemic, state regulators had to pre-approve the labels for canned beer. Now they have waived some of the rules, and Fisher and her team have been filling in part of the label information with Sharpies.
At the taproom, a pint of beer might have sold for six or seven dollars, so a round of four pints would bring in more than $25. Those same four pints, as a take-out order, go for $10 or $12, of which three dollars or more would be just for the labels and cans.
So the Fishers are selling beer but at a tiny margin, which barely covers their costs. Before, with full service, they would typically have six or seven employees on a Friday night. Now, to manage take-out, they have one or two. (Several of the employees have voluntarily reduced their hours, so others can have them.) Escape has expanded outdoor seating, in the parking areas and loading dock outside their tap room. “We’re lucky to have that space,” Melissa Fisher said. “But when it’s 98 to 102 degrees—even when we have cooling machines, even with a beer—not everyone can handle being outside.” Like many other brewers and distillers, they’ve also been selling a line of hand sanitizer.
“What we’re making now, is keeping the lights on,” she said. “And we’ve had a huge amount of support from people who’ve become our friends.” Because of their savings, and adaptability, they expect to keep going, and ultimately to expand. But what they’re doing now isn’t sustainable, she said. “Something has to change.”
Something does. Stories like these deserve notice, in my view, because little businesses like Bent Paddle and Escape have played such an outsize role in bringing vitality and local-connectedness to so many American towns.
Coming next, two other stories, with other implications, from northern Florida and the Bay Area of California. And after the jump, reactions from two brewers.
In response to the item earlier this week, Jim Koch, of Boston Beer Company adds this point. He is discussing the recent change in Massachusetts beer-distributor laws, which his company support even though it will help all local beer companies except his:
I realized there was one major thing I missed in our discussion that makes what happened in MA surprising in a business context. That is the craft beer ethos that we are as much colleagues as competitors and that if we all act for the good of each other, we will all, in the long term, benefit even if there is short term sacrifice.
I think that attitude, which often means sharing “trade secrets” and ideas and helping each other out with ingredients or equipment, has been an important part of our success and is rare in US business. It also makes for a happier professional life if you can look at your competitors as colleagues and friends. It is exemplified in the craft brewer practice that when you’re having beers with each other, each of you orders the other’s beer rather than your own.
And, a note from someone on the other end of the craft-brewing spectrum from Koch. This person writes from Florida, and from a small, newish company, but he shares Koch’s concern about arcane distribution laws. He writes:
As a small craft brewer in Florida … we will survive due to the support of our community and our location. Some of my good friends in this industry may not make it. [One reason is …] beer distributors and their death grip on the craft beer industry - it’s important to our overall survival.
We have a very good relationship with our distributor. They are good people and our goals are aligned. But Florida franchise law, as it is, makes me pray these goals remain aligned because should they diverge, just like any Florida brewer - I will most certainly be on the losing side of any dispute. I’d like to see this inequity balanced for the good of the industry.”
A few decades ago, “American beer” had the same connotation in the world of brewing as Velveeta-style “American cheese” had for connoisseurs of Stilton or Brie. Mid-20th-century American beer culture was known for its handful of giant breweries, and for the unadventurous, bland lagers they pumped out.
In those days, brewers in England or Belgium or Germany would roll their eyes at what Yanks considered “good beer.” It was like French or German bakers talking about American white bread.
Now, of course, the tables have turned. I’ve seen little brewpubs from Beijing to Bogota, and Athens to Amsterdam, that feature “American-style craft beer.” It’s easy to make fun of the recent era of micro-brews and macro-hops. But the modern rise of American craft brewing has been a genuine success story of entrepreneurship, localism, small-business creativity, and in many places, of civic renewal.
Before everything changed because of the pandemic, America’s craft-brew industry was still growing—though more slowly and unevenly than in the true boom era a few years earlier. (There are fascinating details in this BrewBound industry analysis from a few months ago.) The number of breweries in the country had fallen below 100 by the early 1980s, in the depths of mega-brewer concentration. In 2018, it passed 7,000 and was still rising.
But what will happen now? I’ve been following up with breweries large and small around the country, and I’ll begin with the views of Jim Koch (pronounced cook), well known from TV commercials for Sam Adams beer and as the face of the company he co-founded with Rhonda Kallman in 1984.
I called Koch partly because of his role as one of the pioneers of American craft brewing, which I described in an Atlantic article about him on the 30th anniversary of the company’s founding. (Among the other significant pioneers were Ken Grossman, of Sierra Nevada in Chico, California; Jack McAuliffe, of the New Albion brewery in Sonoma; Fritz Maytag, of Anchor Steam in San Francisco; and Jimmy Carter, of the White House. It’s a story for another time, but Carter helped make the modern craft movement possible by deregulating home brewing in the late 1970s.)
I also wanted to talk with Koch because he’s been in the news. Many things about American brewing still operate in the shadow of 1920s-era Prohibition. During its nearly 14-year run, from the start of 1920 to near the end of 1933, Prohibition’s ban on legal drinking killed off most of what had been a thriving local brewery industry across the country. (Before widespread refrigeration, beer was mainly a locally made-and-consumed product, since it was hard to ship.) Even after the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, states were freer to regulate business involving alcohol than most other forms of commerce, and many burdensome regulations remained. These included the home-brewing ban that Jimmy Carter finally overturned, and onerous “distributor” laws that distort the industry now.
“You don’t hear about lumber wholesalers who are fabulously rich,” Jim Koch told me last week. His point was: You do hear about beer wholesalers and distributors. For instance, John McCain became rich when he married his second wife, Cindy Hensley, who had inherited control of her family’s hugely lucrative Hensley distributorship in Arizona. Lumber mills, and most other businesses in the United States, are allowed to adjust their business plans and sell online or directly to customers if they choose, without going through wholesalers. By contrast, in most states brewers large or small may not legally sell directly to customers (outside their own taprooms, allowed in many states). Instead they must go through distributors—who can end up making as much from each case of beer as the brewer does.
In the Sam Adams home territory of Massachusetts, the relevant law was one that, in effect, permanently bound a brewery to whatever distributor it had initially done business with. “In Boston, I can only sell my beer to a single distributor,” Koch told me. “And retailers can’t get it from anyone but that distributor. This might have made sense 50 or 80 years ago, when the wholesalers were quite small and the brewers were all-powerful.” But now, he said, the dynamic has flipped. The brewers are small and proliferating new businesses. The distributors—only two main ones in the Boston area—had much more power, and if they decided not to feature a new brewery or line of beer, there was very little the brewer could do.
As the craft brew industry has grown, complaints about this relationship have as well. For instance, five years ago, in an online Beer Advocate forum about possible changes in the Massachusetts law, one person wrote:
Imagine you're a growing local brand (Night Shift, Newburyport, Notch, etc) that is suddenly railroaded by Not Your Fathers Root Beer and beers of its ilk flooding the market and you end up relegated to the back-end of your distributor’s priority list. Maybe you'll get their attention again when the current fad dies down, but maybe not. But hey, you signed a contract 6 months ago and are stuck for life as an also ran in your distributors portfolio.
Over the past decade, Koch and other Massachusetts brewers have waged a campaign to change the Massachusetts laws that in essence permanently bind brewers to their distributors. This month, there was a breakthrough, and one in which Koch and Sam Adams played a crucial part.
Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams (and has now merged with Dogfish Head, originally from Delaware), is by far the biggest “small” brewer in Massachusetts. Thus it is also the most lucrative for its wholesaler. This summer, the brewers’ alliance pushing for reform agreed with wholesalers, after years of haggling, on a compromise. The wholesalers were willing to give up on the lock-in provision, but only for breweries producing less than 250,000 barrels a year. As everyone involved was aware, that exclusion applied to a category-of-one. The compromise would mean that all craft breweries in Massachusetts would be freed from the existing restriction—except the Boston Beer Company, which produces more than 4 million barrels of Sam Adams each year.
Jim Koch’s willingness to support a reform that would help everyone but him was reportedly the key in moving the reform legislation forward. As Matt Murphy of State House News Service wrote,
Koch ... agreed in this latest round of talks to support a compromise that would exclude his company.
“That was a big point in breaking the iceberg. Clearly this was much more difficult to resolve if Jim Koch and Sam Adams was still in the mix. Again, good faith in an effort to help the smaller craft brewers,” Senate President Karen Spilka said.
In a statement, Koch said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made some brewers particularly vulnerable to wholesalers who might prioritize other products, and predicted that without reform some might not survive. He said that despite some concessions by wholesalers to include larger brewers, it was clear that the distributors would not support a bill that included Boston Beer.
“From Lawrence to the Berkshires, craft brewers serve as economic engines, employers and draw tourism to their communities. If brewers have to wait another two years for a bill to be considered, some will not survive,” Koch said in a statement provided to the News Service by the company. “Boston Beer had to make a decision. At the end of the day, that decision was to sacrifice ourselves by being excluded from Franchise Law reform in order to protect the hundreds of our fellow craft brewers in the state.”
“We’d been working on this for a long time,” Koch told me. “And then COVID hit. A lot of small breweries had tap rooms they relied on”—but those were ordered closed. “The wholesaler became life-or-death for a number of our members. It became clear that if we didn’t make a change, some of our members [small brewers] were not going to make it.”
Koch said that when the wholesalers accepted a deal that would liberate all companies except his, he had to make a decision. But, “I didn’t have to think very long about what was the right thing to do,” he said. “We had to take the deal, even though it did not include me.” Koch, who is not quite the good-old-boy he portrays in TV ads, elaborated that “from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls” he couldn’t find a rationale for declining to support the agreement. (A dozen years earlier, as described in this article, he had taken a similar hit for the team. During the world hop shortage of 2008, he had shared some of Sam Adams’s strategic stockpile of hops with smaller brewers—as many of the smaller brewers have attested.)
And what is the prospect for brewers in general, through the pandemic and shutdown? “So far, it has not been quite as devastating as we all thought,” Koch told me. Why? “Because people are actually drinking the same amount of alcohol, and seem to be trading up to more premium forms.” The bars and restaurants are suffering, because fewer people can go there. The brewers are not suffering as badly, because people are buying as much or more of their product to drink at home.
“I am assuming tap rooms won’t be closed forever,” he said. “Suppose it’s two years until things are ‘Back to normal,’ so that people are not freaked out about going out in public.” The question, he said, is how many of the small companies can survive in the meanwhile.
Even before this crisis, Koch said, craft brewing had been a volatile though growing industry. Even in “normal” times, the turnover rate for restaurants or brewpubs might be 10 percent per year, he said. “Suppose 10 percent of craft brewers will not be able to reopen. But those that have a sound, solid business model, and are creative with new products, I believe will survive.” He pointed out that no sane person had started up a microbrewery primarily in hopes of ROI. “They loved beer. They wanted to be part of the community. Those motivations will be part of all of our getting through this adversity. And maybe your taproom will be a little more important to the community than it was before.”
Next up: Reports from some of these much smaller brewers, and from another major player.
This note is to kick off a resumed set of chronicles in the “Our Towns” series, after time away for a long Atlantic project on the origins of this era’s public-health and economic disaster.
The results of that project are here: “Three Weeks That Changed Everything.” If you’re wondering, the three weeks I have in mind are: January 1, 2020—when first mentions of an outbreak of a new “pneumonia type disease” in central China would have appeared in the CIA-produced “President’s Daily Brief,” at the White House, which in normal governing circumstances would have triggered the beginnings of a coordinated federal response—through January 22, when the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 turned up in the United States. I argue that at the start of that time, it might have been possible to contain the disease near its point of origin, before it became a global disaster. By the end of that time, the U.S. had made fateful decisions that put us on our current catastrophic path.
In a bleak way, the past few months have underscored a message Deb Fallows and I have been discussing for years: At a time of federal-government paralysis and worse, the functionality and cohesion at many points in local- and regional-level America have been the main source of resilience.
I am careful to say “at many points” rather than “everywhere,” because some governors, and a handful of mayors, have followed the disastrous federal example of treating the pandemic as another front in the national-politics war, rather than as public-health emergency. But most governors (of both parties), plus an overwhelming majority of mayors (whose offices are usually not strongly partisan), and a larger and larger share of corporate, private, and non-profit organizations have offered such traction, practical-mindedness, and civic spirit as the nation can display at the moment.
Of course, these dispersed efforts are not enough, in coping with a disaster of this scale. If national governance fails, the whole nation suffers—as does the world, which in previous disease crises had relied on the U.S. to take the lead (again, as my Atlantic piece argued). But local, statewide, regional, and private/NGOs are what we have work with—and learn from, and expand—right now.
To kick things off today, three developments that shed light on how the parts of America that still work can be applied to the parts now so badly failing.
I know, I know: Another commission report, with another lofty title, from another worthy institution, grappling with another of our biggest public challenges. But this one is different and is worth paying attention to. (For the record: I saw an early version of the report but had nothing to do with its preparation or contents. The web version of the report is on the Academy’s site here, and a free downloadable PDF is here.)
The report’s diagnosis of America’s civic, cultural, and governing problems will be recognizable to most readers. The real payoff is the recommendations. There are 31 of them, in six categories, and they’re both impressively ambitious and surprisingly practical-minded, which means that—in theory—they are achievable.
For instance, the sweep of the ideas involves proposals as consequential (and logical) as changing the Supreme Court to fixed 18-year terms for justices, with one nomination every two years; or switching to ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections, to avoid third-party “spoiler” results; or adopting the Australian model in which voting in federal elections is an expectation-of-citizenship, like showing up for jury duty. Significant as such changes might be, only one of the 31 proposals would require amending the Constitution—all the rest could be done by Congress or state legislatures, or would require no legal changes at all. The one exception is this—essentially, correcting the Supreme Court’s ruinous Citizens United ruling from 2010:
RECOMMENDATION 1.5 Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system, and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.
There’s a lot more in the report, not all of which I agree with, but the vast majority of which would make America more workable at all levels of governance. Another example: stronger incentives to encourage a year of national service. And allowing states to create multi-member congressional districts, if in so doing they could reduce gerrymandering and ideologically “safe” seats.
Congratulations to the three directors of the project, Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu, and to their colleagues who held meetings and citizen-hearings all around the country in coming up with their recommendations. This should be one of the roadmaps for digging out of the current rubble. For more on the fixed-term Supreme Court proposal, see a note* at the end of this item.
Also: If you’re looking for a wry, quickly readable, yet informed and edgy discussion of the same topic, I highly recommend Democracy In One Book or Less, by David Litt. Readers of Litt’s previous book, Thanks, Obama, will need little prodding to get his new work. Litt was a young White House speechwriter for Barack Obama, and that previous book, published in 2017, was one of the funnier and more self-aware entries in the special niche-literary category of speechwriters’ memoirs. His new book is not exactly like Schoolhouse Rock, the corny-but-informative ’70s-era video series on how democracy works, including such classics as “I’m Just a Bill.” But it’s in the same spirit: whimsy and pop culture, enlisted toward the end of knowledge. Here’s the Washington Post review of Litt’s book. Read it!
And in the same “bonus reading tips” spirit, please check out Joe Mathews, of Zócalo Public Square, on the useful thought experiment of California declaring independence (it won’t happen, but it’s clarifying to think about); and Quint Studer, a successful businessman who has become a civic leader in Pensacola, Florida, on how to broaden understanding of what it takes for democracies to survive.
2) Right to Start, from the Right to Start Fund and Victor Hwang:
Victor Hwang, originally trained as a lawyer, is a longtime tech entrepreneur and startup evangelist. I came to know him in his years with the entrepreneur-minded Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City. While there he emphasized the foundation’s findings that a huge share of America’s net job growth comes from brand-new, startup firms. Bigger firms obviously employ more people, but as time goes on they have little net job creation.
The graph below, produced by the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates the pattern: In most recent years, long-established firms (gray line) either shed more jobs than they create, or add only modest numbers overall. By contrast, new firms (blue line) have added one to two million jobs nearly every year. The point is obvious once you think about it: Since startup firms, by definition, have no existing jobs to lose, every job they create is a net plus. But Hwang and his Kauffman colleagues have long emphasized a less obvious implication: that if an economy wants new jobs, it needs to foster the creation of new firms.
Now Hwang has devoted himself full-time to policies at the national, state, and local level that will make it easier rather than harder to start a small business, a small factory, even (someday) a small restaurant. Obviously this is all the more important now, as the small businesses that have been so crucial in city-by-city revival (as I described here) have come under new, intense pressure.
At Kauffman, Hwang helped write the “America’s New Business Plan” policy guideline, which begins this way:
America’s future depends on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs not only embody the American spirit, they also power our economy. The new businesses they start account for nearly all net new job creation… [Yet] starting and building a business has become harder and rarer in most of America….
America remains a nation with vivid entrepreneurial dreams. More than 60% of Americans have a dream business in mind they would love to create, and more than 40% would quit their job and start a business in the next six months if they had the tools and resources they needed...
There is a hole at the center of our economic discussion where hope should be.
Victor Hwang and his colleagues wrote that, and the rest of the manifesto, before the pandemic upended everything. But I think their recommendations for state legislators and regulators (here), for local officials and policy makers (here), and for federal candidates and office-holders (here) are worth your time and attention.
Update: Victor Hwang’s organization has just released a video from Tulsa, about “The Legacy of Black Wall Street” there. The reference is of course to the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, whose centennial the city is planning to observe in appropriate ways next year.
3) The Career Certificates Program, from Grow with Google:
Back at the dawn of time, I wrote an Atlantic cover story called “The Case Against Credentialism.” It argued that the American higher-education system and associated “meritocracy” had less and less to do with the abilities that should enable people of different backgrounds to get ahead, or with the professional competence that society needed.
That is: Parents understood that getting children into the right preschool helped them get into the right prep school, which helped them get the right test scores, which helped them get into the right college, which helped them … in some general way. (Mainly by getting to the top rather than the bottom of an unequal economy.) But as a society looked at the twin goals of maximizing opportunity and rewarding real performance, it made less and less sense to enable a system that gives such an edge to those who start out with advantages.
This is a point many people recognize in principle, though it is hard to implement in practice. It’s a reason Deb and I have given such emphasis to community colleges over the years, for instance here (about Kansas and Michigan) and here (about Ohio). Community colleges matter because they are the part of the U.S. educational system most committed to matching people who need opportunities with the opportunities this era has opened up.
The high-tech industry is not often seen as a vehicle of rapid class mobility within the United States. For people from around the world, yes! Less so for people without financial or educational advantages inside the U.S.
In the past few years, Deb and I have often referred to initiatives by Grow With Google, a non-profit arm of Google started in 2017 and devoted to applying advanced tech tools to job-search, civic resilience, and local-startup ends. (For the record: Grow With Google was an underwriter for some of our travel and reporting last year. Deb and I had known, liked, and collaborated with members of this organization in the time well before their business relationship with the Atlantic—and have stayed in touch with them thereafter.)
This past week Grow With Google announced a new program to offer transferrable certificates, in a variety of tech-related fields. The crucial aspect here is the standardization and nationwide (or international) transferability of these credentials. The training may be under Google’s auspices, but the goal is a credential that people can use to show their proficiency when applying for jobs elsewhere.
“Everyone says ‘Bachelor’s degree or equivalent’ in job listings,” Lisa Gevelber, VP of Global Marketing and a leading figure in Grow With Google, told me last week. “But there was no standard definition of what that ‘equivalent’ is.” Five years ago I wrote about an effort in San Bernardino, California, to provide a standardized, transferrable credential in machine-tool and similar skills. Grow With Google is trying to do that on a much broader scale, in an array of skills that have much faster-than-average growth in job availability, and much higher-than-average wages. In addition to tech-related fields like IT support, the certificates cover project-management and data-analytics skills that can be applied in a range of industries.
“A college degree is just out of reach for lots of folks, but a great job doesn’t have to be,” Gevelber told me. “People want to get started, but they don’t know what would be a specific, realistic pathway.” The new certification program, operated in partnership with 100 community colleges around the country (and eventually with “career technical” programs at many high schools), intends to offer the same kind of specific “here’s the next step” certification that people intending to be lawyers have with the LSAT and law degrees, or that aspiring pilots have with FAA certifications. The program also offers its students extensive free “soft skill” training—practice in writing resumes, preparing for job interviews, and generally filling in the background that people from more advantaged backgrounds would already have. Students in these programs pay $49 per month to Coursera, which hosts them. Lisa Gevelber said that students typically finish in three to six months, at a total cost of $150 to $300—and that Google is funding 100,000 scholarships, in addition to other reduced-cost options.
Standardized degrees for professional-class America—the BA, the PhD, the law and medical and related credentials—have been indispensable tools of mobility and opportunity for many people. Standardized and portable credentials for the rest of America are also important, which is why I think this initiative deserves notice.
The main theme of my pandemic article was that people have thought hard about “gray rhino” challenges—problems that, unlike “black swans,” are foreseeable and inevitable, but whose timing is unknown. In earlier administrations, they had come up with plans that could have saved us incalculable suffering, cost, and woe.
Something similar is true of these civic and economic plans. People have thought about this! We should listen to them.
* Let me make an additional news-sensitive point about the Supreme Court reform proposal, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
There was a time when selecting nominees as Justices was not a tontine-style longevity-guessing contest. In 1965, while still in his mid-50s, Arthur Goldberg stepped down from the Court to become Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations. For Goldberg it turned out to be a very poor career choice, but it illustrated an era when Justices didn’t think they had to hold onto a seat as long as they breathed. Similarly, David Souter stepped down in 2009, before he turned age 70. And he is still going strong.
Now nominees are sought as young as possible, to hang on as long as plausible—adding a random hand-of-fate factor to what is supposed to be democratic governance. Fixed 18-year-terms, with each president expecting a nomination every two years, would reduce the gruesome medical-report aspect of today’s jurisprudence.
Here is the news angle: If a Supreme Court vacancy should occur between now and next January 20, Mitch McConnell has said that he might attempt to ram through a new appointment and confirmation in that time, even after stonewalling Merrick Garland’s nomination during Barack Obama’s final year. If this happens, and he does so, under current rules the Democrats would not be able to stop him. But they should make their planned response clear: Do this, and when we’re next in control, we’ll expand the size of the Court and confirm several new appointees—which might not have been justified when FDR attempted it, but would be now. More on this as news dictates.
Nearly every day of the past two weeks has brought a development that, by itself, would have been a major substantive and political event in other times. As a benchmark and reminder, a reckless move by a Democratic president after he had left office, and a glib off-hand comment by a Republican president while he was still serving, remain vivid, years after they happened, as axes of political, legal, and press consequences.
For the Democrats, the instance was the decision by Bill Clinton, then 16 years out of office and husband of the Democratic candidate, to walk across the tarmac at the Phoenix airport in June, 2016, and talk with Loretta Lynch, who was Barack Obama’s attorney general. From that encounter grew Republican complaints that Clinton was “interfering” with the Justice Department’s investigation of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” then Lynch’s recusal from the case, then its effective transfer to James Comey, the FBI director, and then—you know the rest.
For the Republicans, the moment came three days into the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, in 2005. On a visit to the drowning city, George W. Bush told Michael Brown, then head of FEMA, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Four years after the Lynch episode, anyone involved in politics remembers its role in making the phrase “But, her emails...” central to a presidential election. Fifteen years after Katrina, “Heckuva job” remains a part of the standard mocking vocabulary of public life.
But almost every 24-hour span in public life, circa 2020, brings comparable developments. They risk being lost to memory, because of the Iguazu Falls-scale torrent of shocking-but-not-surprising assaults on civic, logical, and governing norms.
Just as an unelaborated list, here are a few of the things that occurred over the days when the U.S. death toll from the pandemic was rising from nearly 70,000 to nearly 90,000. At least half-a-dozen of these would, in normal times, be front-page developments on their own.
Starting two weeks ago, we have:
May 6: Trump and his administration essentially declared “Mission Accomplished” about the pandemic, and shifted from an emphasis on public-health effects to saying that the economy should be the real focus.
May 7: Trump’s complaisant attorney general, William Barr, had his Justice Department drop charges against Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to federal agents.
May 12: The Supreme Court, in a phone-based remote session, heard arguments on whether Donald Trump had absolute immunity from congressional scrutiny into his tax records from before he ran for office.
May 13: Trump criticized Fauci, saying that his answer about a timetable for opening schools was “not acceptable.”
May 14: Richard Burr, a senator from North Carolina who has been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, resigned from that committee post (but not from the Senate) after the FBI seized his phone and other documents, in an investigation on whether had traded on inside information about the pandemic.
May 14: Rick Bright, formerly a senior vaccine-development official and now a whistleblower, testified on why he had been pushed out of his job for insisting that scientific standards be applied to some of Donald Trump’s drug recommendations.
May 15: Late on Friday night, the administration announced that it had fired the State Department inspector general who had been looking into possible financial irregularities involving Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and his wife. This was the latest in a long series of internal watchdogs whom Trump and his associates had removed.
May 16: Trump tweeted out his support for people in New York who were badgering and harassing local reporters. “People can’t get enough of this,” Trump wrote. “Great people!”
Also on the evening of May 16, Barack Obama delivered his video message to the graduating class of 2020. Obama was deliberate in not criticizing Trump directly—in contrast to his notorious ridicule of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, which arguably humiliated Trump so comprehensively that it fueled his desire to run for office. But Obama’s implicit message could not have been clearer.
As a speechwriting note: Every time a leader addresses a community in time of trouble, the message needs to include these three elements, in order. First, empathy:I know this is hard, I know that you have suffered and are afraid. Second, confidence: We’ve been through tough times before, we will come out of this ahead. Third, a plan: Here are the next specific things we are going to do. You can look at any effective “time of trouble” speech, from Lincoln to FDR and onward, and see just this approach. Obama applied it in his brief address. Trump never does, since his messages always are: 1) I am doing such a great job, and 2) Everyone else is so unfair to me.
Not every one of these items would qualify as a standalone, discussion-focusing, campaign-shifting, reputation-changing event, in normal times. But most of them would.
On May 14, TheFinancial Timespublished a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:
Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.
On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:
“Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”
These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.
And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.
Where the desperation of late-stage meritocracy is so strong, you can smell it
Photo illustrations by Pelle Cass
Updated at 10:03 a.m. ET on October 19, 2020.
To make the images that appear in this story, the photographer Pelle Cass locked his camera onto a tripod for the duration of an event, capturing up to 1,000 photographs from one spot. The images were then layered and compiled into a single digital file to create a kind of time-lapse still photo.
Image above: Cornell versus Dartmouth, women’s lacrosse, October 2019
On paper, Sloane, a buoyant, chatty, stay-at-home mom from Fairfield County, Connecticut, seems almost unbelievably well prepared to shepherd her three daughters through the roiling world of competitive youth sports. She played tennis and ran track in high school and has an advanced degree in behavioral medicine. She wrote her master’s thesis on the connection between increased aerobic activity and attention span. She is also versed in statistics, which comes in handy when she’s analyzing her eldest daughter’s junior-squash rating—and whiteboarding the consequences if she doesn’t step up her game. “She needs at least a 5.0 rating, or she’s going to Ohio State,” Sloane told me.
Totally Under Control delivers a damning—and essential—report card on the White House’s mismanagement of the pandemic.
Given the ongoing nature of the pandemic, it may seem senseless to make a two-hour film that looks back on how the coronavirus ran rampant in the U.S. And yet, Totally Under Control—from the Oscar-winning writer-director Alex Gibney and his co-directors, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger—not only documents the chaos of 2020 with clear-eyed precision, but also successfully argues for its own existence.
Filmed in secret over five months, Totally Under Control (streaming on Hulu) uses news footage and interviews with experts and government whistleblowers to show how the administration missed each opportunity to either stop the virus from arriving in the U.S. or prevent its spread. The filmmakers present these events in rapid, blow-by-blow succession, lending the doc an urgency that contrasts with the languid federal response to the pandemic. The result is a film that—unlike 76 Days, the moving and intimate documentary on the lockdown in Wuhan, China, made without talking heads—feels shocking to watch in retrospect for its crisp frankness. Viewers may have grown numb to the constant churn of distressing news and learned to stomach the administration’s failure to contain the virus. But Totally Under Control refuses to look away, and being reminded of how many warnings went unheeded is unnerving.
When it comes to foreign policy, the president’s most important characteristic is not amorality or a lack of curiosity; it is naïveté.
To Donald Trump’s critics, four years of posturing has left him exposed for all the world to see. The president hasn’t made America great again, they argue; he has made it weaker than it’s ever been: disrespected, ridiculed, and now even pitied, as it struggles to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. He has failed to rebalance relations with China, failed to deal with North Korea, failed to end the endless wars in the Middle East, failed to cow Iran, failed to stop European free-riding, and even failed to improve relations with Russia. And that’s before one considers his record of undercutting or destroying international treaties on climate change, trade, and nuclear weapons.
To Trump’s supporters, this is manifestly unfair. The president has, for them, finally reversed Barack Obama’s weakness: He has reinforced red lines, put America first, ripped up bad deals, corralled allies to pay more for their own defense, led the global change in attitude against China, defeated the Islamic State, and kept the United States out of any new wars. Add to that deals in the Middle East to normalize ties with Israel and the new line of communication with Pyongyang, and the world, they say, is now a safer place, and one that is better for American workers. If he has ruffled feathers and offended people along the way, so be it.
“Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1. Our worlds are backward.”
Kami West had been dating her current boyfriend for a few weeks when she told him that he was outranked by her best friend. West knew her boyfriend had caught snatches of her daily calls with Kate Tillotson, which she often placed on speaker mode. But she figured that he, like the men she’d dated before, didn’t quite grasp the nature of their friendship. West explained to him, “I need you to know that she’s not going anywhere. She is my No. 1.” Tillotson was there before him, and, West told him, “she will be there after you. And if you think at any point that this isn’t going to be my No. 1, you’re wrong.”
If West’s comments sound blunt, it’s because she was determined not to repeat a distressing experience from her mid-20s. Her boyfriend at that time had sensed that he wasn't her top priority. In what West saw as an attempt to keep her away from her friend, he disparaged Tillotson, calling her a slut and a bad influence. After the relationship ended, West, 31, vowed to never let another man strain her friendship. She decided that any future romantic partners would have to adapt to her friendship with Tillotson, rather than the other way around.
QAnon has become a linchpin of far-right media—and the effort to preemptively delegitimize the election.
Whether President Donald Trump wins or loses, some version of QAnon is going to survive the election. On the day of the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, the individual or group known as “Q” sent out a flurry of posts. “ONLY THE ILLUSION OF DEMOCRACY,” began one. “Joe 30330—Arbitrary?—What is 2020 [current year] divided by 30330? Symbolism will be their downfall,” read another, darkly hinting at satanic numerology in Joe Biden’s campaign text-messaging code. Vague, foreboding messages that could mean anything or nothing—these are the hallmarks of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory, built around Q’s postings on internet message boards, in which Trump is heroically battling a global cabal of devil-worshipping pedophiles. But something noteworthy lurked in Q’s final post of the night: “SHADOW PRESIDENT. SHADOW GOVERNMENT. INFORMATION WARFARE. IRREGULAR WARFARE. COLOR REVOLUTION. INSURGENCY.”
The pandemic has revealed that higher education was never about education.
American colleges botched the pandemic from the very start. Caught off guard in the spring, most of them sent everyone home in a panic, in some cases evicting students who had nowhere else to go. School leaders hemmed and hawed all summer about what to do next and how to do it. In the end, most schools reopened their campuses for the fall, and when students returned, they brought the coronavirus along with them. Come Labor Day, 19 of the nation’s 25 worst outbreaks were in college towns, including the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Iowa State in Ames, and the University of Georgia in Athens. By early October, the White House Coronavirus Task Force estimated that as many as 20 percent of all Georgia college students might have become infected.
People of faith should embody moral and intellectual integrity.
In public, Donald Trump has spoken in glowing terms about his evangelical supporters, calling them“warriors on the frontiers defending American freedom,” people who are “incredible” and “faithful,” a bulwark against assorted moral evils.
But behind the scenes, as TheAtlantic’sMcKay Coppins recently reported, “many of Trump’s comments about religion are marked by cynicism and contempt, according to people who have worked for him. Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.”
Trump “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse recently told his constituents.
Since 2018, I’ve conducted roughly 50 focus groups with Trump voters to understand the shifting dynamics within the Republican Party.
President Donald Trump is losing to former Vice President Joe Biden by more than 10 percentage points in both the Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight national polling averages. This historically large margin suggests that something amazing has happened: Even in our hyperpolarized political environment, a meaningful number of voters have changed their minds about Trump.
Equally amazing: The majority of 2016 Trump voters—despite a mismanaged pandemic, widespread economic fallout, a racial crisis exacerbated by divisive rhetoric, and a debate meltdown—plan to back Trump a second time.
What makes one voter who supported Trump in 2016 decide to support Biden? And what makes another voter—even one who thinks things are going badly—stick around?
The polls are grim for President Donald Trump. His campaign faces a big and worsening money disadvantage. His closing arguments appeal only to the most hyper-partisan Republicans.
Many have worried about the transition after a Trump electoral defeat. Will Trump leave office quietly and peacefully? But there are other, less dramatic dangers to ponder, too—dangers that we would do well to anticipate and guard against.
Funding the government
The resolution funding the federal government expires December 11. If it is not renewed, the U.S. government will shut down, as it did for 35 days in December 2018 and January 2019, the longest shutdown in U.S. history. That shutdown badly hurt the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter of 2018.
“Never before have there been vaccine trials that have been followed so closely from inception to onset to conduct,” Dan Barouch, a vaccine researcher at Harvard and collaborator on Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, says. Over the next few months, the companies behind the leading vaccine candidates will start releasing the first data from large clinical trials. Most likely, they will not be unalloyed good news or bad news. Keeping expectations measured will require understanding when a vaccine clears just one of many hurdles—it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it must be good enough.