On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.
Over the weekend I mentioned the new video by our friends at the Bitwise tech incubator in Fresno, California, which exemplified the gritty spirit — “You think we’re losers? Well just watch” — that we’ve admired and described about the city.
I asked Jake Soberal, co-founder with Irma Olguin of Bitwise, how the video came to be. Here’s his answer, and after that two other notes about its tone and approach.
Jake Soberal writes:
As to the back story, it's a neat one. For some time we have been planning for a very grand opening. Our belief is that Bitwise South Stadium is a technology hub of global significance. Its opening demonstrates the credibility of our burgeoning technology industry--to locals and the world at large. With that, the grand opening had two aims: (1) celebrate how far tech has come in Fresno, and (2) inspire it to go even further.
The 1,200 people in black tie, wonderful food and drink, great live music, and fireworks certainly contributed to that. However, we wanted to make sure that there was something lasting; an anthem of sorts.
So we hired local filmmakers Gordon Howell and Pat Dill to create this video to serve exactly that role. They put together the storyboard, filmed everything you see, wrote the spoken word poetry and music playing behind it, and pieced it all together; they're a super talented duo.
The video was played on the big screen the night of the event, and then released online on Thursday. So far it's doing exactly what it was designed to do….
It's really amazing to be a part of what's happening in Fresno right now.
We're fond of saying that in Fresno Geeks are fixing America's most broken city.
Two extra notes. One reader noticed that the video was similar in tone to another I had said I’d loved. That was Eminem’s famous “Imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad four years ago, which I saw via online stream (over VPN) in our apartment in Beijing and then immediately felt homesick. Here that is, followed by Fresno’s.
Now, as a bonus, the Selected of God chorus of Detroit that both sang the background music for the Eminem video and sang for Ben Carson’s campaign announcement.
I realize that I am becoming a sucker for places and cultures, like Fresno and Detroit, whose theme is: OK, you want to look down on us? That’s just fine, go ahead and feel smug, because then you’ll be all the more surprised and unprepared when you see what we can do.
It’s an intellectual vulnerability on my part, but there could be worse ones.
Two days ago I mentioned the welcome news that the Maine Maritime Academy, which John Tierney had written about extensively as part of our ongoing American Futures coverage, had been recognized yet again for providing very high career-earnings value to its students, at a low cost.
The context for this was our also-ongoing discussion of the importance of “career technical education,” once sneered-at under the title of “trade schools” or “vocational ed,” as one of the promising steps we’ve seen around the country with potential to offset at least some of the relentless pressure toward a polarized rich-and-poor society.
Now, a reader who once taught at another maritime academy writes in to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” His point, as you’ll see, is not that there is anything wrong with Maine Maritime itself but rather that the “value added” in higher salaries comes from legislatively protected earnings for merchant seamen.
There are some obvious comebacks to this case, most of which I’ll save for later installments. One I’ll mention now is: this is a demanding and potentially perilous field, as demonstrated long ago by John McPhee in “Looking for a Ship” and very recently by the El Faro tragedy, in which 5 MMA alumni were among the 33 mariners who were lost. And again, the reader’s complaint is not with the school but regulatory regimes more broadly. It is sort of like saying that medical training doesn’t “add value” to graduates’ earnings, since under different payment systems doctors would make less money.
More on these fronts later. For now, the reader’s response on Maine Maritime. He begins by noting that the 15 schools that got perfect 100 scores in a recent “value added” study included several maritime academies:
Looking over the list, all the maritime academies are represented. Since they all seem to get the top score of 100, there is nothing special about the Maine academy. [JF note: actually, at least two state-run maritime academies did not get a top score. Still, the reader’s point is that this type of school seems over-represented.]
I used to teach at the US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY. It is true that students who graduated did get good jobs. But I think this is really an exceptional industry, one in which the Federal Government has acted in several ways to improve the earnings of it’s graduates.
Merchant Marine jobs are highly protected by the Jones Act from any foreign competition. Their college tuition and all expenses are covered by the government. [JF note: This is true at the US Merchant Marine Academy but not at Maine Maritime, whose students are responsible for their own tuition and costs.] The maritime jobs the students fill are highly unionized, and there is limited competition since only the graduates of the maritime academies are allowed to fill them by federal law. There are several laws which protect those jobs from automation. For example, all ships must take on a certified pilot when entering a harbor.
Frankly, my students [at USMMA] struck me as particularly unambitious. The school’s unwritten motto was “2.0 and go”. That is, the students just needed to eke out a C average to graduate, secure in the knowledge that there would be a decent-paying union job waiting for them at the back end. I did not see more value added at the school than at the several other schools I have taught at or attended.
The high income of these students upon graduation is the direct result of federal intervention and regulation on their behalf. If anything, it suggests that the solution to inequality might be from more federal intervention and regulation. Of course, the economy as a whole pays for this regulation. As a small example, the Jones act has helped destroy the economy of Puerto Rico. and forced shipment of oil by rail by making coastal transit so expensive.
I’ve asked our friends at Maine Maritime Academy, and other involved parties, for their reply.
For previous installments in the Fresno saga, please check here. Early last year, in our American Futures saga, we reported on Bitwise, a tech incubator, training school, entrepreneur center, and overall social force in one of California’s least-fashionable cities.
The video below shows the way Bitwise has announced its opening of a big, new center in Fresno’s long-bedraggled, now-recovering downtown. People in San Francisco or New York can be smugly confident in their coolness. We like, better, the Fresno kick-ass spirit.
I've asked Jake Soberal, of Bitwise, for the back story about the script and dramatic presentation of this video. Will report when I know. For now, congratulations to Soberal, his co-founder of Bitwise Irma Olguin, and all others involved.
These were early entries in what has become one of our central themes. That is the importance of what used to be dismissively known as “vocational education” or even “trade schools,” and now might be called “career technical education” or go by other names—but which, by any name, has a newly crucial economic and social-mobility role.
The caricature view of today’s economy, which is uncomfortably close to the truth, is that it is separating into financiers and rentiers at the top end, and on the other end the people who feed, care for, drive, clean, teach them yoga, and otherwise attend them. The large-scale factory-based jobs that broadened the middle class of the 20th century are obviously not coming back.
The main “good middle-class jobs” that are increasing are in the skilled trades. Welders, high-end repair technicians, engineering-type jobs in health care and logistics and agriculture and aerospace, and on down a long list. That’s where “career technical education” — in K-12 schools, at community colleges, at local tech centers, wherever — comes in.
Sea-borne shipping is one of these areas of rapid growth of high-wage technical jobs. This week Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings released a survey of colleges ranked not on snob appeal, endowment, or other pernicious measures but rather by “value added.” As Rothwell put it:
Value-added measures attempt to isolate the contribution of the college to student outcomes, as distinct from what one might predict based on student characteristics or the level of degree offered. It is .. a way to compare colleges on a more equal footing, by adjusting for the relative advantages or disadvantages faced by diverse students pursuing different levels of study across different local economies.
Of the 1600+ four-year colleges in the ranking, 15 got a perfect 100 score. Those 15 ranged from the most usual of usual-suspects, Harvard, to some schools I had never heard of, and one I knew well: Maine Maritime Academy. You can search and see the whole list if you check the Brookings report. Here is a screenshot of the top group.
The news for Maine Maritime is particularly welcome, coming after a great tragedy earlier this month. As explained in a series of releases on the Academy’s site, of the 33 mariners who were lost when the cargo ship El Faro sank on October 1 during Hurricane Joaquin, five were Maine Maritime alumni. According to the school, they were: Mike Davidson, Class of 1988; Danielle Randolph, Class of 2005; Mitchell Kuflik, Class of 2011; Mike Holland, Class of 2012; and Dylan Meklin, Class of 2015. Our best wishes, respect, and sympathies to their friends and families.
After winning her award, Michaela Coel delivered the rare message meant for those outside the glitzy room in which she stood.
When the camera turned to Michaela Coel after she won an Emmy for limited-series writing, she looked overwhelmed. The creator, star, writer, and co-director of I May Destroy You kept her head down, her shoulders slouched. Next to her, Coel’s former co-star Cynthia Erivo whispered something into her ear—a pep talk, maybe. But for a few seconds, Coel remained still, as if the weight of her first, historic Emmy win might keep her from going onstage.
Luckily, it didn’t. Coel gave one of the night’s shortest speeches, and perhaps its most revealing. In her remarks, Coel did something unusual: She thought about her audience, tried to reach beyond the other entertainers seated in the room with her. “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable,” she said. “I dare you … Visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success. Do not be afraid to disappear—from it, from us—for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.” She spoke directly to the potential storytellers hoping to one day be onstage. And she didn’t just advise them; in a night of pomp and circumstance, she reminded them of the value of quieter triumphs.
The pandemic keeps changing, but these principles can guide your thinking through the seasons to come.
For nearly two years now, Americans have lived with SARS-CoV-2. We know it better than we once did. We know that it can set off both acute and chronic illness, that it spreads best indoors, that masks help block it, that our vaccines are powerful against it. We know that we can live with it—that we’re going to have to live with it—but that it can and will exact a heavy toll.
Still, this virus has the capacity to surprise us, especially if we’re not paying attention. It is changing all the time, a tweak to the genetic code here and there; sometimes, those tweaks add up to new danger. In a matter of weeks, the Delta variant upended the relative peace of America’s early summer and ushered in a new set of calculations about risk, masking, and testing. The pandemic’s endgame shifted.
A generation facing an intractable problem debates whether to bring a new generation into the world.
Miley Cyrus vowed not to have a baby on a “piece-of-shit planet.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mused in an Instagram video about whether it’s still okay to have children. Polls suggest that a third or more of Americans younger than 45 either don’t have children or expect to have fewer than they might otherwise because they are worried about climate change. Millennials and Gen Z are not the first generations to face the potential of imminent, catastrophic, irreversible change to the world they will inherit. But, it seems, they are the first to seriously entertain whether that means they should stop having children.
This question tends to cleave people into two camps: those who think considering climate change is reasonable and necessary when making decisions about having children, and those who find this premise unthinkable. “There’s a difference in caring about our climate … and asking a legitimate question about doing away with the human race,” the conservative television personality Abby Huntsman said on The View of Ocasio-Cortez’s comments.
The president’s decision could cost Democrats in 2022 and 2024. He doesn’t care.
When President Joe Biden rolled out his plan requiring vaccinations on a mass scale, he sounded a bit like a gambler at a point of desperation. Biden’s presidency, and much of his legacy, hinges on defeating the prolonged pandemic. During a dismal summer of rising infections and deaths due to vaccine holdouts and the Delta variant, the pandemic seemed to have defeated him. Under the new rules, Biden hopes to pressure about 80 million more Americans to get their shots. It’s a political risk that opens him up to Republican attacks that he’s intruding on peoples’ freedoms, ahead of midterm elections that could easily strip the Democrats of their congressional majority. Biden gets this. He’s all in, win or lose.
As the 2022 redistricting wars heat up, multiple lawsuits may help determine the future of Congress.
Most members of Congress crave political security, and Terri Sewell has it. For more than a decade, she’s represented Alabama’s Seventh District, a 61 percent Black hodgepodge that awkwardly links the bustling cities of Birmingham and Montgomery via the sprawling, agriculturally rich Black Belt (named for the region’s dark topsoil), where more than a quarter of residents still live below the federal poverty line. The Seventh has never given her less than 72 percent of the vote.
In 2022, she wants to dismantle it.
“If we’re a quarter of the population, we should be a quarter of the seats,” Sewell told me recently. In last year’s census, Black residents accounted for 27 percent of Alabama’s population. Black voters, however, effectively wield power in just one of its seven districts—even though two districts with slimmer Black majorities would be possible to draw. “I’m for broadening the representation of African Americans across Alabama, instead of concentrating it in my district,” she said.
A misconception about the prevalence of working from home explains a lot about confirmation bias in America.
About six months ago, a colleague asked me to guess what percentage of Americans were still working from home. I was still spending eight hours a day making calls just a few feet from my fridge. So were most of my friends. Maybe 40 percent? I guessed. I was off by half. Twenty-one percent of Americans were still teleworking as of March 2021; the other 79 percent were leaving their home like the old days.
This was a case of beltway bias on my part, and I should have known better. My parents, in Iowa, had gone back to in-person work at that point, and many of my friends in the state had teleworked for only a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic—if at all. Last week, The Atlantic commissioned a poll from Leger, asking Americans to estimate how many people had worked from home during the pandemic. The results weren’t entirely surprising: Those working remotely tended to overestimate how many other people were doing the same.
Washington’s push against Beijing’s human-rights abuses could have more of an impact than tariffs or trade wars.
Executives at the fashion brand Eileen Fisher are no strangers to China—or to its enormous benefits and dangerous pitfalls: The American outfitter began manufacturing its clothing there about a quarter century ago, but last year, it realized that working in China could no longer be business as usual.
The catalyst was Beijing’s repression of China’s Uyghurs in the far-west province of Xinjiang. A series of reports exposed horrific abuses of the Muslim minority group, including mass detentions, torture, and forced labor in factories and fields. “There are some issues that that’s it, you draw the line, and forced labor is one of those,” Amy Hall, Eileen Fisher’s social-consciousness strategic adviser, told me.
Conventional wisdom says that venting is cathartic and that we should never go to bed angry. But couples who save disagreements for scheduled meetings show the benefits of a more patient approach to conflict.
For decades, when Liz Cutler’s husband, Tom Kreutz, did something that bothered her, Cutler would sometimes pull out a scrap of paper from the back of her desk drawer. On it she would scribble down her grievances: maybe Kreutz had stayed late at work without giving her a heads-up, or maybe he’d allowed their kids to do something she considered risky. The list was Cutler’s way of honoring a promise she and her husband had made. They would talk about their frustrations only in scheduled meetings—which they held once a year for a time, and later, every three months. It’s a system they’ve adhered to for more than 40 years.
Any psychologist will tell you that conflict is both an inevitable and a vital part of a close relationship. The challenge—which can make the difference between a lasting, satisfying partnership and one that combusts—is figuring out how to manage conflict constructively.
What I learned about transcendence from a very boring 100-mile trek
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Last month, a survey by the travel industry found that a majority of Americans changed their vacation plans this summer because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic. But not everyone canceled their vacations entirely; travel spending has been almost as high this summer as it was in the summer of 2019. Some would-be adventurers simply found ways to do the exotic things they’d planned to do overseas in less exotic places. One of my friends, for instance, went bungee jumping in North Carolina instead of Costa Rica.
For my vacation, I did the opposite: I went with my family to a fairly exotic place to do a distinctly unexotic thing. I went to Spain and took a very quiet 100-mile walk.
The pandemic has exposed a fundamental weakness in the system.
America has too many managers.
In a 2016 Harvard Business Review analysis, two writers calculated the annual cost of excess corporate bureaucracy as about $3 trillion, with an average of one manager per every 4.7 workers. Their story mentioned several case studies—a successful GE plant with 300 technicians and a single supervisor, a Swedish bank with 12,000 workers and three levels of hierarchy—that showed that reducing the number of managers usually led to more productivity and profit. And yet, at the time of the story, 17.6 percent of the U.S. workforce (and 30 percent of the workforce’s compensation) was made up of managers and administrators—an alarming statistic that shows how bloated America’s management ranks had become.