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.
On Monday morning, my partner laid a carry-on suitcase down on the floor, preparing to pack for his first post-vaccination trip to visit his parents. The moment he unzipped the bag, our cat Calvin promptly clambered inside.
A piece of me would like to think that Calvin was attempting to covertly join my partner on his trip, or perhaps thwart his inevitable attempt to spirit away. But I’m pretty sure #OccupyLuggage was less a heart-wrenching bid to tag along on a flight, and more a textbook example of a central scientific tenet: Cats are absolute suckers for boxes. And sinks, and vases, and grocery bags, and shoes, and Pringles cans, and the nooks and crannies between furniture and walls, and just about any other space they deem cozy, confining, and swaddly. (Cats, in case you were wondering, are a non-Newtonian liquid.) It’s the one thing about which our pointy-eared companions are not terribly picky: If it fits, they sits. And when they do, we humans can’t help but obsess over them.
For some Americans, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it’s the story they want to believe.
This article was published online on May 10, 2021.
Most of the people who come to Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, come for the windows—masterpieces of Tiffany glass in the cemetery’s deconsecrated church. One morning before the pandemic, I took a tour of the church along with two other visitors and our tour guide, Ken. When my eyes adjusted to the hazy darkness inside, I could see that in each window stood a saint, surrounded by dazzling bursts of blues and greens and violets. Below these explosions of color were words that I couldn’t quite make out. I stepped closer to one of the windows, and the language became clearer. Beneath the saint was an inscription honoring the men “who died for the Confederacy.”
For most young people, the social and emotional benefits of taking masks off outdoors greatly outweigh the personal and public-health advantages of keeping them on.
As parents gradually reap the rewards of vaccination—including unmasking outdoors, socializing unmasked indoors with other vaccinated people, and abandoning anxiety about getting seriously ill—they’re wondering if they need to keep up pandemic precautions for their children’s sake.
I am a primary-care doctor, and the parents I talk with are deeply concerned about their communities; they also want to see their kids reengage in life. They want to liberate themselves from the intensity of pandemic child care and worry. I can empathize: I’m a mother of three.
Although emergency-use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine was granted this week for 12-to-15-year-olds, kids in this age group and younger ones don’t need to wait for freedom through shots. They can and should enjoy some benefits of our collective progress. That’s why I’ve begun telling my patients that their kids, vaccinated or not, do not need to wear masks outside—despite the fact that the CDC recently issued summer-camp guidelines that recommend kids wear masks whenever physical distancing is difficult, including outside. I know that parents in some communities get dirty looks at the playground if they let their kids run around without masks, but doing so is not a sign of recalcitrance; it’s a sign that they’re following the science.
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence.
Updated at 11:10 a.m. ET on February 8, 2021.
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence that now seems out of reach for all too many Americans. I refer, of course, to the Simpsons. Homer, a high-school graduate whose union job at the nuclear-power plant required little technical skill, supported a family of five. A home, a car, food, regular doctor’s appointments, and enough left over for plenty of beer at the local bar were all attainable on a single working-class salary. Bart might have had to find $1,000 for the family to go to England, but he didn’t have to worry that his parents would lose their home.
This lifestyle was not fantastical in the slightest—nothing, for example, like the ridiculously large Manhattan apartments in Friends. On the contrary, the Simpsons used to be quite ordinary—they were a lot like my Michigan working-class family in the 1990s.
The recent scandal at her talk show suggests that the host’s smiling facade covers up something dark—and hints at why that facade had to be created in the first place.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show features a recurring segment, called “Cash for Kindness,” that spreads good cheer by lying to people. DeGeneres will send a producer or an audience member out into the world to pretend to be some harried worker—a cater-waiter, a delivery person, a birthday-party magician—and then, in spectacular fashion, spill whatever they’re carrying on the sidewalk. As potatoes go rolling or greeting cards flap in the wind, a trap is laid. DeGeneres watches through hidden cameras to see which passersby do, or don’t, stop to help pick up the mess.
The bit is funny because it is mortifying. Speaking into her producer’s wireless earpiece, DeGeneres feeds her staffer ever-more-distressing banter to recite: There’s an engagement ring in the tiramisus! The greeting cards are supposed to be in alphabetical order! The strangers who stop to help are, you may suspect, a bit nervous that they’ve been roped into some scam—or maybe worse, roped into a situation that will expose the limits of their time, means, or generosity. Eventually, the undercover staffer reveals that they work for Ellen. The random Good Samaritan is brought onto the talk show’s set, and DeGeneres hands them cash: a reward for being kind, but also, it feels, payoff for being messed with.
Like any good prank, especially the pranks DeGeneres loves, cash-for-kindness revels in voyeurism, deceit, and discomfort, all of which get forgiven in the name of a laugh. Yet, like so much of DeGeneres’s comedy, this mischief doubles as do-goodery. It is part of DeGeneres’s grand campaign to merchandise kindness—which is also seen when she says “Be kind to one another” at the end of each show, or when she gets taxi drivers to hug Uber drivers on air, or when she hawks kindness-themed subscription boxes for up to $250 a year. Her aesthetic of cream colors, goofy grins, and uplifting tears, along with her amusing displays of light sadism, have earned her a $330 million empire, a raft of Emmys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
By early February 2020, China had effectively locked down tens of millions of its citizens. Entire hospitals were sprouting from scratch to cope with an onslaught of coronavirus cases there. The World Health Organization had just declared that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was a “public health emergency of international concern.” And on February 7, I went on a radio show and spent much of the segment discussing the economic implications of the ordeal for East Asia.
I often think about that segment now and wonder how I could have been so unimaginative. I was so focused on the desperate scenes in China that I failed to consider that similar scenes could soon transpire around the world. Why didn’t I grab the mic, dispense with the usual commentary, and issue an urgent plea for the world to wake up?
The modern Republican Party does not tolerate criticism of its once—and current—leader.
One of the many Republican principles that Donald Trump obliterated was what was known as Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Like several of the stone-tablet dictates (the prohibitions on committing adultery and bearing false witness come to mind), this directive was lightly followed and rarely enforced—politics is a rough sport. But Reagan’s edict served the purpose of keeping internal GOP disputes from getting out of hand. Candidates and party leaders (including a former vice president named Dick Cheney) regularly used the line as a way to de-escalate intraparty fights.
Trump, of course, spares no one his vituperation. Insults are his shtick and his identity, and Republican voters love him for it. Just as he has remade the party in his image—on trade, on spending, on immigration, and on interventionism, among other policy areas—so too has he revised Reagan’s unwritten rule to apply not to fellow Republicans but to him alone. That commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of Donald Trump”—is the one that House Republicans enforced this morning when they ousted Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming as their conference chair in one of the more anticlimactic votes in recent memory. GOP lawmakers claim they removed Cheney because her refusal to let go of Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection amounted to “a distraction” in their attempt to regain the House majority. But anyone can see that her sin was far simpler: Cheney continues to call out Trump as a threat to democracy, and the party no longer abides such criticism—not from a party leader, and not publicly.
The U.S. should delay shots for children until global vaccine-manufacturing capacity significantly expands and the crisis in India subsides.
In the coming months, the United States and other rich nations will have the opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of lives threatened by COVID-19 in South Asia. On Monday, the FDA authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in children ages 12 to 15. But in the name of global equity, Americans should delay vaccination of our own children until global vaccine-manufacturing capacity significantly expands and the crisis in India subsides. Such a delay would mobilize tens of millions of additional doses, which could be used almost immediately in hard-hit regions overseas. Especially now, as the supply remains limited, leading nations should work to ensure that doses go where they will do the most good for public health.
In February 2020, I traveled to New York to celebrate a zeroth birthday and an 80th birthday. First, I saw a close friend’s baby, who had been born only a month earlier. The next day, I went to my grandmother’s birthday party at a crowded Italian restaurant near Times Square.
I would say that this experience made me think about aging and what the alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss (of all people) called “the Great Span”: the way that seemingly distant history is only a few lifetimes away. But this would be a writer’s white lie. I think about time’s bucket brigade probably too much, and I am constantly looking for tidy anecdotes. Weeks earlier, I had already written in the notes app of my phone: “When my friend’s baby is my grandmother’s age, it will be 2100.”
When the richest of the rich split up, the usual dilemmas are mixed in with the fate of enormous charitable efforts and billion-dollar stock holdings.
When Bill and Melinda Gates announced on Monday that they would be ending their 27-year marriage, they tweeted intandem that they “no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple.” The reasoning wasn’t unusual for a 21st-century divorce, but their private emotional journey has highly atypical financial implications: Between their personal holdings and the charitable foundation they started together, the amount of money they control—somewhere around$180 billion—is roughly equal to the annual GDP of Kazakhstan or Qatar.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which they launched 25 years after Bill co-founded Microsoft, is one of the biggest private charitable foundations in the world, with an endowment of about $50 billion. In a sense, the jobs of its 1,600 employees and its investments in malaria prevention and early-childhood education have rested on the bedrock of Bill and Melinda’s marriage.