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.
The president has been intervening in the process of producing a border wall, on behalf of a favored firm.
Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The human brain can’t contend with the vastness of online shopping.
In theory, Amazon is a site meant to serve the needs of humans. The mega-retailer’s boundless inventory gives people easy access to household supplies and other everyday products that are rarely fun to shop for. Most people probably aren’t eager to buy clothes hangers, for instance. They just want to have hangers when they need them.
But when you type hangers into Amazon’s search box, the mega-retailer delivers “over 200,000” options. On the first page of results, half are nearly identical velvet hangers, and most of the rest are nearly identical plastic. They don’t vary much by price, and almost all of the listings in the first few pages of results have hundreds or thousands of reviews that average out to ratings between four and five stars. Even if you have very specific hanger needs and preferences, there’s no obvious choice. There are just choices.
“Every classmate who became a teacher or doctor seemed happy,” and 29 other lessons from seeing my Harvard class of 1988 all grown up
On the weekend before the opening gavel of what’s being dubbed the Harvard affirmative-action trial, a record-breaking 597 of my fellow members of the class of ’88 and I, along with alumni from other reunion classes, were seated in a large lecture hall, listening to the new president of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, address the issue of diversity in the admissions process. What he said—and I’m paraphrasing, because I didn’t record it—was that he could fill five whole incoming classes with valedictorians who’d received a perfect score on the SAT, but that’s not what Harvard is or will ever be. Harvard tries—and succeeds, to my mind—to fill its limited spots with a diversity not only of race and class but also of geography, politics, interests, intellectual fields of study, and worldviews.
An ancient faith is disappearing from the lands in which it first took root. At stake is not just a religious community, but the fate of pluralism in the region.
he call came in 2014, shortly after Easter. Four years earlier, Catrin Almako’s family had applied for special visas to the United States. Catrin’s husband, Evan, had cut hair for the U.S. military during the early years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was on the phone. “Are you ready?” he asked. The family had been assigned a departure date just a few weeks away.
“I was so confused,” Catrin told me recently. During the years they had waited for their visas, Catrin and Evan had debated whether they actually wanted to leave Iraq. Both of them had grown up in Karamles, a small town in the historic heart of Iraqi Christianity, the Nineveh Plain. Evan owned a barbershop near a church. Catrin loved her kitchen, where she spent her days making pastries filled with nuts and dates. Their families lived there: her five siblings and aging parents, his two brothers.
In its later seasons, the show started relying on heavy-handed historical references to do the difficult work of character-building.
When Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run on Sunday, the series finale, titled “The Iron Throne,” received a largely negative critical response. Many writers pointed out that the show’s last season had given up on the careful character-building of Thrones’ early days—a problem that, in truth, had started a few years back. The result was a seemingly rushed conclusion where multiple characters made poorly justified decisions and important story lines felt only halfway developed.
The show made plenty of mistakes in its final episode, but among the most significant was Thrones’ abrupt and uncharacteristic turn to moralizing—and its use of heavy-handed allusions to 20th-century history to do so. Characters who were once morally complicated, whose actions fit within well-developed personal motivations and fueled the show’s gripping political drama, became mechanisms to bring the story to a hasty, unearned conclusion. Characters like Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister—previously complex and fully formed—became, in “The Iron Throne,” mere tools in the service of a plodding message about the dangers of totalitarianism.
Uber was the most valuable private company in history, but the public market has not been as enthusiastic. The reason explains a lot about how the tech industry works.
Uber is now a massive, publicly traded company. Anyone can buy Uber shares at a valuation of about $70 billion. This isn’t bad for a company losing billions of dollars a year, but it’s a fraction of the $120-billion valuation the IPO’s bankers initially floated. It’s roughly what private investors valued it at three years ago, when the company made $7.43 billion less revenue.
Smith College's unusual ceremony is more than just a silly tradition.
Smith College’s annual commencement ceremony begins like any other: Graduating seniors at the women’s liberal-arts college are called up one by one to collect their diploma from the president. Perhaps some students exchange a wink with the regalia-clad honorary-degree recipients nearby as they stride across a platform overlooking the dorms they’d for years called home; others may pause to flip their cap’s tassel while blowing a kiss to the sea of parents who have long awaited this milestone commemorating their daughter’s metamorphosis from undergraduate to alumna.
Except the moment, technically, hasn’t happened quite yet: The name, degree, and accolades printed inside each padded holder seldom belong to the woman who receives it. They very likely belong, rather, to one of her nearly 700 classmates.
SpaceX and its competitors plan to envelop the planet with thousands of small objects in the next few years.
In 1957, a beach-ball-shaped satellite hurtled into the sky and pierced the invisible line between Earth and space. As it rounded the planet, Sputnik drew an unseen line of its own, splitting history into distinct parts—before humankind became a spacefaring species, and after. “Listen now for the sound that will forevermore separate the old from the new,” one NBC broadcaster said in awe, and insistent that others join him. He played the staccato call from the satellite, a gentle beep beep beep.
Decades later, we are not as impressed with satellites. There have been thousands of other Sputniks. Instead of earning front-page stories, satellites stitch together the hidden linings of our daily lives, providing and powering too many basic functions to list. They form a kind of exoskeleton around Earth, which is growing thicker every year with each new launch.
The White House can’t end the conflict by expecting one side to surrender unconditionally.
Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fundamentally about land and territory? It is certainly partly about that. But when you hear the objections and grievances of both sides, the issue of who has what part of which territory doesn’t necessarily figure all that prominently.
I recently took part in a study tour on religion and nationalism in Israel organized by the Philos Project. One Palestinian official whom we met told us, “I’m not going to compromise my dignity.”
The problem with what we know of the Trump administration’s “peace plan” is that it asks Palestinians to do precisely that. The entire Trump approach seems to be premised on calling for unilateral surrender. It is premised on destroying the will of a people, and hoping that despair might one day turn into acquiescence. This is the only way to interpret Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s insistence onprioritizing economic incentives over political progress, but this misunderstands most of what we know about human motivation.
The British prime minister, who said she will resign on June 7, had one job: to deliver Brexit. She failed to do it.
British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Friday that she “will shortly leave the job that has been the honor of my life to hold.”
The long-anticipated address, outside Downing Street, confirms that May will step down as the leader of the Conservative Party on June 7. She will remain prime minister until the party chooses a new leader, a process that will take approximately six weeks.
In many ways, May’s announcement marks a solemn end to a profoundly weak yet surprisingly stable premiership. But if the past three turbulent years of parliamentary deadlock, infighting, and division have demonstrated anything, it’s that May’s leadership ended a long time ago.
Her premiership didn’t begin that way. When May succeeded David Cameron as prime minister in July 2016, she inherited a parliamentary majority and a 20-point lead in the polls over the opposition Labour Party. She was dubbed the “New Iron Lady,” in a favorable nod to the country’s only other female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. But she also inherited a policy challenge of historic proportions: to deliver on a referendum result she didn’t support, and take Britain out of the European Union.