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.
Georgia had an early surge of the virus, and now cases are spiking again. Brian Kemp has refused to learn a thing.
America has botched its coronavirus response in so, so many ways since the pandemic began. Even in a country that stands apart from the world for its horrific failures, there have been as many leadership bungles as there are states: Some failed to heed early warnings. Others refused to learn the lessons of outbreaks that came before theirs. Still others played politics instead of following science. And then there’s Georgia.
Georgia’s response to the pandemic has not been going well. It was bad from the beginning: Back in early April, weeks after other states took initial precautions, Georgia dawdled toward a shutdown while its coronavirus cases surged. Still, less than a month later, the state chose to be among the first in the nation to reopen, bringing back businesses known to accelerate the virus’s spread, such as restaurants and gyms, even though new infections had never made a significant or sustained decline. In June, the state welcomed back bars. What happened next was predictable, and was predicted: Case counts came roaring back. More people got sick and died. Many of these deaths were preventable. The state now has the sixth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States, behind five states with significantly larger populations.
The Biden vice-presidential-nominee finalist discusses Trump’s pandemic response, Benghazi, and her family’s politics.
A few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice held a press briefing in her office to talk about the threats she saw on the horizon as Barack Obama’s presidency drew to a close. “What keeps you up at night? one reporter asked toward the end of the meeting. Her answer: a pandemic that spirals out of control.
Yesterday afternoon, I asked Rice how the past five months have compared to what she’d been worried about in the early days of 2017. “This is about in the realm of my worst nightmare,” she told me. That’s why, Rice said, she worked to put together plans, and why she oversaw the creation of the pandemic-preparedness office that Trump famously closed. “We knew it was going to happen. We just couldn’t know when.”
A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million.
Three predictions for what the future might look like
In March, tens of millions of American workers—mostly in white-collar industries such as tech, finance, and media—were thrust into a sudden, chaotic experiment in working from home. Four months later, the experiment isn’t close to ending. For many, the test run is looking more like the long run.
Google announced in July that its roughly 200,000 employees will continue to work from home until at least next summer. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects half of Facebook’s workforce to be remote within the decade. Twitter has told staff they can stay home permanently.
With corporate giants welcoming far-flung workforces, real-estate markets in the superstar cities that combine high-paid work and high-cost housing are in turmoil. In the San Francisco Bay Area, rents are tumbling. In New York City, offices are still empty; so many well-heeled families with second homes have abandoned Manhattan that it’s causing headaches for the census.
How I got co-opted into helping the rich prevail at the expense of everybody else
From my parents’ teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s through my teenage years in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my grandparents were teenagers. But then all of a sudden, around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed.
I didn’t really start understanding the nature and enormity of the change until the turn of this century, after the country had been fully transformed. One very cold morning just after Thanksgiving in 2006, I was on the way to Eppley Airfield in Omaha after my first visit to my hometown since both my parents had died, sharing a minivan jitney from a hotel with a couple of Central Casting airline pilots—tall, fit white men around my age, one wearing a leather jacket. We chatted. To my surprise, even shock, both of them spent the entire trip sputtering and whining—about being bait-and-switched when their employee-ownership shares of United Airlines had been evaporated by its recent bankruptcy, about the default of their pension plan, about their CEO’s recent 40 percent pay raise, about the company to which they’d devoted their entire careers but no longer trusted at all. In effect, about changing overnight from successful all-American middle-class professionals who’d worked hard and played by the rules into disrespected, cheated, sputtering, whining chumps.
No matter what happens now, the virus will continue to circulate around the world.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurgingin manyof the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
Which is too bad because we really need to understand how the immune system reacts to the coronavirus.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on August 5, 2020.
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.”
The thing is, the immune system is very complicated. Arguably the most complex part of the human body outside the brain, it’s an absurdly intricate network of cells and molecules that protect us from dangerous viruses and other microbes. These components summon, amplify, rile, calm, and transform one another: Picture a thousand Rube Goldberg machines, some of which are aggressively smashing things to pieces. Now imagine that their components are labeled with what looks like a string of highly secure passwords: CD8+, IL-1β, IFN-γ. Immunology confuses even biology professors who aren’t immunologists—hence Metcalf’s joke.
The comedian’s employees say that fame has enabled callousness and abuse on her show. The warm testimonies of her superstar friends highlight their point.
Famous people want the world to know that Ellen DeGeneres is nice to famous people. Addressing media reports alleging a culture of harassment and bullying at DeGeneres’s talk show, the singer Katy Perry tweeted Tuesday that she’s “only ever had positive takeaways from my time with Ellen.” Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Hart, Jay Leno, Diane Keaton, and the superstar agent Scooter Braun have all recently made similar declarations about DeGeneres’s kindness, so as to push back against claims painting her as callous toward staffers, fans, and other entertainment-industry figures. “Looking forward to the future where we get back to loving one another,” Hart wrote, blasting those who have criticized DeGeneres and called for her to step down. “This hate shit has to stop.”
I don’t know that I would ever be able to forgive him for taking this away from me.
My husband and I have been together for nearly four years and are struggling to decide whether to have another baby. When we met, he had a 3-year-old son, and after a messy custody battle, he got primary custody of his son, my stepson.
I found out I was pregnant shortly after we started dating. When we decided to live together, I made sure to have a talk with him in which I was completely open about my wishes to eventually have another baby. I did this in large part because he is 14 years older than me. I have always wanted three children, and despite my early unexpected pregnancy, I was not willing to enter into a deeper relationship where having more children was not an option. Not only did he enthusiastically agree at the time, but he jokingly said he wouldn't mind having another 10 children.
Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers.
The other day my husband, a public-school teacher in New York City, got a string of texts from a work friend. After checking in on our family and picking up their ongoing conversation about books and TV shows, she wrote, “So, are we going on a teacher strike in the fall?”
“What!? No!” My husband is adamantly against a strike, because he understands on a deep, personal level his duty to serve his country in the classroom.
We have two young children, one of whom is developmentally disabled, and I’m an intensive-care nurse. Through the spring, I took care of COVID-19 patients at the hospital while he toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons. He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too.