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.
Here's the back story: In our American Futures reports from Down East Maine, my wife Deb and I wrote about the (obvious) importance of the seacoast in the region’s past and future, and John Tierney wrote specifically about the achievements of the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
Last week Maine Maritime was honored (again) as a leading “value added” institution, raising its graduates’ earnings. A reader wrote in to dissent, on two points. First, he said the high earnings were an artifact of unusual legal protections for the merchant-marine industry (summed up as “the Jones Act”), which sheltered it from world competition. Second, he said that when he was teaching at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, he thought the students were mediocre and under-motivated.
I answered on the first, main point by saying: that’s not really a rap against Maine Maritime. Merchant shipping is a perilous activity — as it happens, five MMA alumni were among the 33 people lost recently on the El Faro — and if the earnings are “unnaturally” high, that’s not MMA’s fault. It would be like saying that medical schools didn’t really raise their graduates’ earnings, since under a different medical system doctors wouldn’t be paid as much.
Today I got a note from the president of the Maine Maritime Academy, William J. Brennan, in fuller response to the reader’s letter. Here it is, with a few explanatory notes inserted:
The reader’s view is unfortunate and contrary to my view of Kings Point [the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy] and its cadets, which in my experience, is a great college with wonderful students. But this federal academy, as you point out, is much different from Maine Maritime Academy, which is a state institution, attendance at which requires students to pay tuition, unlike their Kings Point counterparts.
His comments about the Jones Act are particularly misleading as cabotage laws of this nature have been used by countries around the globe for hundreds of years. [Cabotage laws restrict transportation activity within a country to that country’s own carriers.] Essentially the merchant marine is no more or less regulated than virtually all other industries in which graduates from the other colleges ranked highly by the Brookings Institute [the survey in which MMA got a top-tier score] pursue their careers.
His comments about the union are also incorrect as there is no union requirement that I’m aware of stipulating that a member must be a graduate of a maritime academy. Indeed, there are a number of union members who achieve their merchant mariners licenses through the so-called “hawse pipe” via which a mariner works his or her way up through the ranks based on time at sea and the development of the necessary skills required by the United States Coast Guard. He also implies that all graduates of these academies enter a union; however, Maine Maritime Academy’s placement data refutes that statement. Of our principal marine license track graduates over the past three years, less than one third joined a union.
And finally, the experience with unmotivated students the individual refers to does not reflect the experience at Maine Maritime Academy. Of all the public institutions of higher learning in the State of Maine, we have the highest persistence rate, the highest retention rate, the highest graduation rate and our average GPA of current seniors who will receive an unlimited license in marine engineering is 3.21. In my experience, these students are focused and driven to succeed. Our job at the Maine Maritime Academy is to help our students become successful here so that they can be successful in their careers and hopefully in their lives.
Dr. William J. Brennan
Maine Maritime Academy
Early this year my wife Deb and I filed several reports from the genuinely startling and inspiring small town of Ajo, Arizona. Ajo is far away from pretty much everything except the spectacular Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Also nearby, for warplane fans, is the Barry Goldwater bombing range just to the north, as described here. Just to the east is the large tribal land of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and there is a big Border Patrol station to the south of town.
A century ago, Ajo was the site of an enormous open-pit copper mine. Thirty years ago, the mine closed suddenly, leaving a gigantic (but interesting!) lunar-surface-scale crater as a landmark but removing most of the town’s economic reason for being.
Over the past ten years, indefatigable teams of activists, artists, entrepreneurs, dreamers, and volunteers and others have set about rebuilding and reviving the town. Deb told part of their story here and here, and I compared it with some other small-town, arts-based revival efforts in the United States and China here. Seriously, if you didn’t read this earlier report by Deb, please check it out.
The centerpiece of current efforts in Ajo is the new Sonoran Desert Conference Center, a combination resort / retreat / meeting place / educational center being built in a beautiful, architecturally striking former school, shown below.
Around the same time Deb and I arrived in Ajo to see the center and the town, a young couple from the northeast, Emily Raine and Stuart Siegel, were also getting their first look at the area. Initially this was for them just one more “hmm, it could be interesting” stop on a see-America wanderjahr they were calling their Big-Ass American Adventure. You can see Stuart's Tumblr chronicle of their travels, and Emily’s essay on 10 Things to Love About Ajo after they had been there for a while. Here is a picture taken when they drove us to the airport in Gila Bend.
Although this had seemed merely an interesting possibility when we first met them, Emily and Stuart ended up signing on as at-least-for-now residents of Ajo and directors of the new conference center. And earlier this month, they were married right there. You can see one photo above, and many more at a flickr collection by their friend Margaret Collins. More than 100 friends and family made the trek from the rest of the country, and Emily and Stuart marshaled extensive support from local friends in Ajo, including the high school band. As Emily wrote after the ceremony,
The phenomenal food by the local postal worker and police dispatcher who moonlight as caterers...that gorgeous bouquet and boutonniere by the local flower shop/funeral home...the retirees that drove us to and from the ceremony in their classic cars...the saguaro cactus chuppah that the deputy sheriff who does woodworking helped us make...the dozen or so Ajoites who led activities for guests on Saturday morning (yoga! gardening! beer tasting! meditation! historic walking tour! hiking!)...the AJO HIGH SCHOOL BAND playing at the ceremony...it was a pretty amazing small-town desert wedding!
(In case you’re wondering: No, Ajo has not been a traditional center of Jewish weddings or Jewish life in southern Arizona. During its mining heyday, the working population was a mixture of Anglo, Latino, and Tohono O’odham and other tribal families, and the main religions were Catholic, various Protestant denominations, Mormon, etc. This ceremony was one more aspect of Ajo’s renaissance.)
Here is how Stuart and Emily looked earlier this year, as the conference center was still undergoing renovations and they were still making wedding plans:
We were delighted to hear of the wedding and sorry not to be there ourselves. We send the bride and groom — and their community — our heartiest congratulations. We’ll look forward to congratulating them in person. If you’re looking for a place to stay in the southwest, consider the Sonoran Desert Conference Center — and say hello to the directors for us. People like them, deciding to give their best to a new place, often against the odds, have made us feel better, when there is a lot to feel bad about.
During our visits to Fresno, in California’s Central Valley, over the past two years, my wife Deb and I have made regular stops at Peeve’s Public House, on the downtown Fulton Mall.
Initially this was because the proprietor, Fresno patriot and publican Craig Scharton, was the first person to argue to us (at a chance meeting elsewhere in California) that tattered-looking Fresno was worth serious attention as a city turning itself around. After heavy initial skepticism, we became convinced. You can read the summary version of why we changed our minds here, or the full chronicles here. On return trips to Fresno we kept going back to Peeve’s because we liked the beer, food, and atmosphere there. And increasingly we came to respect its role as a civic center, in a part of town very much in need of such a thing. Here was the event board on our first visit:
The Fulton Mall area where Peeve’s has been an anchor and outpost (it’s one of the few businesses now open at night) is in the middle of a mammoth construction project, whose details you can read about here. In the long run, the overhaul is meant to spur downtown Fresno’s revival. In the short run, it’s yet another challenge for the businesses already there.
Last night Craig Scharton put up a long post on Peeve’s Facebook page, saying that conditions had darkened and he flat-out needed more customers if he was to stay open. Here’s the “action” section of his post:
This is an unusual plea to our community of customers. Transparency has been a core value of mine (and therefore Peeve’s Pub). I don’t know if this will work or not, but I know that we don’t have any chance unless we try.
We need about 2,500 extra customer visits in the next month or two. That means people who haven’t tried us yet, come on down. We need occasional customers to make one extra visit, or maybe people who had a bad experience to give us another try. Or it means bringing a friend or two with you or ordering boxed lunches for your next office meeting.
If one-fifth of the people who like us on Facebook do this, I think we’ll survive.
I have no connection to Scharton except as a recent friend, nor to Peeve’s except as a customer. But if I were in Fresno, I’d be voting with my dollars to help it survive. People of Fresno, over to you!
Update Here’s an informative account of menu and beer changes at Peeve’s, by Bethany Clough in the Fresno Bee.
… please come to the first American Futures conference at the University of Redlands, on Friday evening, January 29, and Saturday during the day. You can find agenda and sign-up information here.
At the conference, my wife Deb and I will be discussing what we have found in our past two-plus years of traveling around the country for our American Futures project — which will also be the subject of a cover-story package, with articles by both of us, in the forthcoming March issue of the magazine. (Subscribe!) One of the themes of that presentation is how much more functional American governance and civil-society seem at the city-by-city level than they do, at the moment, on the national scale.
At the conference, mayors whose strategies and records we’ve chronicled in this project will speak about what they’ve done, how they did it, and what lessons can be gleaned from, and applied more broadly, from the stories of their towns. They will include Rusty Bailey, mayor of Riverside, California; Don Ness, who recently completed two terms as mayor of Duluth, Minnesota; Ashley Swearengin, in her second term as mayor of Fresno, California; Nan Whaley, beginning her third year as mayor of Dayton, Ohio; and Knox White, who as mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, since 1995 is the longest-serving mayor in that city’s history.
Plus at least one and maybe more Bonus Mayors! And a session on GeoDesign at the Redlands-based software company Esri, one of our partners in this project.
I can tell you first-hand that these mayors all have very interesting personal and civic stories to tell. You’re likely to keep hearing about them (and not just from me) over the years. If you’ll be in the vicinity, please check out the site for more info and come by.
Next week a cover story whose writing and editing has tied me up for quite a while, and whose reporting has engaged my wife Deb and me over the past few years, will come out in print and on line. (Subscribe!)
Just now Darhil Crooks, creative director of the newly crowned Magazine of the Year, described the process by which he came up with a very nice cover image — plus the interior layout of the story. You can read it here. One of the great satisfactions of magazine journalism is the coming-together of many different kinds of imaginative talents and sensibilities. Part of Darhil Crooks’s genius is being able to move from an editor-level grasp of the argument and tone and ambition of a written story, to the right photographic, layout, illustration, cover-design, and other graphical means through which the message can be conveyed and enhanced. It’s like a good words-and-music combo, in that the pairing seems “natural” or even “inevitable” once you’ve heard or seen it, but (in my case) I could never have imagined it before knowing what the design team has figured out.
As a preview to the piece, here is the “dek,” the summary on the opening page:
Most Americans believe the country is going to hell. They’re wrong. What a three-years journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal—and about how the Second Gilded Age might end.
And here is an intermediate passage on the rationale behind this venture:
There is a high-toned tradition of road trips as a means of “discovering” America, from Lewis and Clark and Tocqueville through John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat Moon (whose Blue Highways made its debut in these pages). Apart from other obvious points of contrast, our project was different in that rather than going by car (or wagon, or pirogue), we’ve gone from city to city in our family’s small single-engine propeller airplane, a Cirrus SR22. This was a decision made for convenience, for beauty, and for edification….
The beauty comes from the privilege and unending fascination of watching the American landscape unfurl below as you travel at low altitude. At the dawn of powered flight, a century ago, it was assumed that writers and painters would want to become aviators, and vice versa…
A coast-to-coast drive across America has its tedious stretches, and the teeming interstate corridors, from I-95 in the east to I-5 in the west, can lead to the despairing conclusion that the country is made of gas stations, burger stands, and big-box malls. From only 2,500 feet higher up, the interstates look like ribbons that trace narrow paths across landscape that is mostly far beyond the reach of any road. From ground level, America is mainly road—after all, that’s where cars can take you. From the sky, America is mainly forest in the eastern third, farmland in the middle, then mountain and desert in the west, before the strip of intense development along the California coast.
It’s also full of features obvious from the sky that are much harder to notice from the ground (and difficult to pick out from six miles up in an airliner): quarries at the edge of most towns, to provide gravel for roads and construction sites; prisons, instantly identifiable by their fencing (though some mega high schools can look similar), usually miles from the nearest town or tucked in locations where normal traffic won’t pass by. I never tire of the view from this height, as different from the normal, grim airliner perspective as scuba diving is from traveling on a container ship.
More to come about the magazine piece, and some new online accompaniments, next week. That is what will keep me busy over the weekend.
Update: Please read on for a new photo contest concept.
Loyal readers of Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, for many years part of our Atlantic online family, know and miss its “The View From Your Window” feature. Here’s a wonderful post by Andrew from ten years ago, when the first few photos were trickling in. During Andrew’s time with the Atlantic, TVFYW became the basis of a very popular contest, which lasted through the remaining years of The Dish.
Chris Bodenner, now the impresario of our Notes section, was one of the stalwarts of the Dish team during its Atlantic era and afterward. He has proposed an updated “The View From Your Airplane Window” feature, in keeping with the emphasis on “the aerial view” you see quoted above.
Shots from airplane windows were an occasional part of the prior TVFYW feature. We’d like to concentrate on collecting aerial shots only — from small planes and airliners, from helicopters and airplanes, from altitudes high enough to reveal large-scale geographic patterns and low enough to display surprising neighborhood or city-planning details.
Chris will be back next week to explain more about the concept and structure of the feature and the contests. (For instance: do drone shots count? Argument for: they can be very interesting aerial views. Argument against: no window. Which naturally raises the question: are windows really necessary? What about views from wing-suits, or hang-gliders, or balloons? Chris will figure all this out.)
In the meantime, please begin sending him any relevant photos, with identifying info— when, where, how, and what’s interesting about what we’re looking at. You can find Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Furthermore on the aerial-view theme, here’s another look at our upcoming cover, this time in motion, courtesy of the Atlantic’s photo whiz Alan Taylor:
Last week I mentioned that one theme of our ongoing American Futures travel had been the distinctive view of America available via low-altitude flight.
Andrew Sprung, of the Xpostfactoid blog, writes in response:
Serendipity: Yesterday evening I read your little ode to seeing the country from small-plane altitude, which for sure stirred some longing. Then a few hours later I read this fictional account in Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge of a 72 year-old woman, "who'd never been alone on a plan before," on a flight from Maine to NYC in a plane "half the size of a greyhound bus":
“The pilots, as well— both looking twelve years old with their unworried brows— had been kind, in the easy way they’d asked Olive if she’d mind sitting toward the back for weight distribution, before they climbed into the cockpit, closing the steel door. A thought unfolded before her— their mothers should be proud.
“And then as the little plane climbed higher and Olive saw spread out below them fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, farther out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats— then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water— seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed. She had been asked to be part of her son’s life.”
Seems like you could relate.
Indeed. Had not read this book but have now ordered it.
Even more than usual, the non-football aspects of The Big Game, from Lady Gaga’s great national anthem through the choice of ads, were more interesting than the defense-and-turnover-dominated struggle on the field. Still, great defense, Broncos!
I have to mention in this space an ad that caught my eye. It was one of the Doritos series, and I’ll bet anything that it was shot in a grocery store I mentioned last fall. That store would be Gerrard’s Market, at the corner of Center Street and Cypress Avenue in Redlands, a small town in inland Southern California and one of our American Futures stops.
Gerrard’s is notable for having the most overwhelming (ie, “best”) selection of craft beer I have seen in any grocery store anywhere. Take that, Whole Foods! Take that, any upscale place! The beers are housed in a large new section of the store called The Cave, which you can read about here. I got a glimpse of The Cave in the background a few seconds into this ad.
I feel pretty sure about this guess, on 30 seconds’ evidence, because Gerrard’s was the neighborhood grocery when I was growing up (alas, before The Cave). Thus I recognize the placement of the palm trees you briefly glimpse, from having walked past them a million times. In local life in D.C. you frequently run into politicians. In local life in SoCal, you have a higher-than-average chance of seeing neighborhood buildings in B-roll for TV shows or ads. An episode of Perry Mason was shot at the University of Redlands when I was a kid. Talk about glamor!
The end of my current story in the magazine, on “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” explores the contrast between what I’m describing as healthy civic society at the city-by-city level, and the bitter dysfunction of modern national politics. We’ve been reminded of the latter once more by the reaction to Antonin Scalia’s death, and the tone of the GOP debate last night.
How can that gap possibly be bridged? Well, I tried in the article. One theme: because people know that national politics is hamstrung, they have found ways to ignore or work around it. And soon I’ll be writing more about some of the presentations at a very useful “Mayor’s Conference” in Redlands, California, that I mentioned here.
For now, I offer another explanation — a long note from a reader that I’m quoting in near-entirety, because I think it touches on some interesting themes.
This reader grew up in what was then an Eastern Bloc country, came with his parents to Brooklyn as a child, and now lives and works in California. He ties the civic “we’re in this together” themes we’re talking with to the ups and downs of some of the presidential campaigns. Over to him:
I wanted to let you know how much I believe [that what we have been describing] is a truth about the country. Because as I was reading the article, I was thinking about my friends and family and I couldn't stop thinking of people who were doing the kind of work you're highlighting.
From my friend who left a major city to go to the southwest and has become heavily involved in all manner of theatre arts, community building, tutoring children and adults with speech disorders. To my mother-in law who grew up in a town in Illinois and worked to organize its sister city events, food festivals, girl scout troops and more while being a public administrator despite her national politics being different to my own. Thank you for writing about a country doing its civic work together.
I know one focus of your article so far is how people operate outside of national politics, what life looks like for ordinary people who have to live in places instead of speculate about them. However, in the context of national politics, I've actually been thinking about the framing of campaigns and speeches.
I think one thing that is lost now in discussions of the 2008 campaign is how much of the then Senator from Illinois' focus, in speeches, was on the audience. That is, 'this is the moment we've been waiting for', 'yes, we can' and 'I can't do it alone.' The prominent theme of sustained civic responsibility appeared also again in 2012 in 'you didn't build that' which was a fractured point but meant to address community bonds, that we do not all fail or succeed all on our own. That we have the capacity to foster each other's success, that we can be culprits in each other's failure and especially in the material conditions of the vulnerable, that our individual success does not automatically translate to a success in our moral obligation to others in a society.
Looking at 2016, I've read more than a few speeches. I think as people search for why, for example, a Jewish Socialist from Vermont is successful, I don't think it boils down to a message of hope or a promise of material returns.
I think it boils down to being a campaign that as it has developed, is in its structure not framed around a candidate, but around civic engagement. That is, from the "#votetogether", the use of "we" in place of "I" or "me", the "not me, us" or "not him, us" and the calls for "political revolution."
When you look at the populism of the Republican side as currently represented by Trump, it is very much "I", in the sense of 'our country needs a truly great leader.' Beyond that, it's populism is framed much more like that of an army than a civic society.
The 2010 and 2012 campaigns had a lot of "we're going to take this country back" which is not the same thing as working "together." It's very much 'be a member of my army.' Whereas, with the Sanders campaign, when the candidate describes material conditions, it is very much almost like it doesn't have to be him there saying it. What he asks, what he emphasizes, where power is centered in the language of the campaign, is with supporters. So they're not asked to find a solution in "Bernie Sanders" they're asked to find a solution in themselves.
To the extent people are being asked to hope, they are being asked to hope for themselves. I think that appeals to people and lends also to a personal nature of a primary in terms of insults or hurt, because people then are not defending candidates, but themselves.
This is framed differently in the Clinton campaign. The sense of civic responsibility and duty, the societal frame, is still there. The sense of obligation to each other. But the weight of power in the language of the campaign is in a different place. During the concession speech in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton had the following exchange:
“What is the best way to change people’s lives so we can all grow together?” she said. “Who is the best change-maker?”
“You are!” people in the audience shouted.
I think, more than anything, the current divide in the framing of the Democratic campaigns and something people do not appreciate in the nature of the pitch. The Clinton campaign, in its core framing, is about the competence of Secretary Clinton, about the record of Secretary Clinton, about the political capacity of Secretary Clinton as being the best possible person, the strongest candidate, to deliver outcomes in the current political climate.
In the Obama 2008 campaign and in the Sanders campaign, the "you are" would be said by the candidate to the audience. That's the piece of the message they share. That's how they address the core of power, responsibility and leadership, by leaving it not with the candidate, but with the people supporting them, letting them just not the candidate's fitness, but their own. I have many, many friends who are supporters of Secretary Clinton and the friends that are supporters of Senator Sanders would still vote happily for Secretary Clinton.
What I've found though is in my friends that support Secretary Clinton, they often are disappointed by the metrics of competence given to the Sanders campaign, and they focus on Sanders the candidate, the ways in which they are lacking and they wonder why other people can't see it, why people assume he'll be able to maneuver around an obstructionist congress. And I think a big thing they miss is the extent to which the Sanders campaign is not framed the same way as the Clinton campaign, not framed as Senator Sanders achieving these things or giving these things to people, but people delivering these results for themselves. It's framed so the question is not 'do you believe in Bernie' but much like the Obama campaign, 'do you believe in us?'
So it's not the candidate, not how they measure up, but how the individuals, these members of the public that share the same concern, how they square up and whether they believe they can participate in the civic experiment of collective action, of democracy, of these changes that are happening in the lives of people all around the country who are building something for themselves and for each other.
I think the biggest thing the Democratic Party will have to reconcile, as it pursues not only the general election, but frankly, the idea of sustained engagement, regardless of the nominee, is these two messages and whether they can be made to co-exist. Everyone in the party ostensibly agrees about our obligation to one another, our desire to build a civic society together. What's happening in this primary is that two things that are not in opposition to each other, leadership and the power and capacity of the public, are artificially placed against each other because of the framing of two respective campaigns in competition. But the Democratic Party cannot do without either, without either the frame of leadership or the frame of public action and engagement….
I also read the wonderful poems and prose Deborah Fallows shared from the high schoolers in Mississippi. Those kids are wonderful and reminded me of my own great experiences and that of my friends in public school programs with teachers who cared deeply for us and had more ambitions for us than we knew to have for ourselves.
Thinking back on the note I sent and the work you're doing, it did make me consider the extent to which President Carter had work to reconcile the two elements of leadership and broad civic engagement. The stories in the malaise speech feel in some ways like before pictures to the stories of recoveries you're writing about now. This is the sort of work it feels like President Carter was speaking to and envisioning, the sort of engine operating outside of and beyond the nightmares that tend to be conjured up in our national politic.
This morning I was on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on CNN, talking about the project behind my current Atlanticcover story. A YouTube version of the full show is here; a one-minute out-take, in which I talk about why some people decide to make Duluth (above) or Redlands the center of internationally successful enterprises is here. A podcast is here.
If you go to the full-version video on YouTube (don’t yet see official CNN version), “Fareed’s Take” on the Sanders-budget controversy is for the first five minutes, then Thomas Friedman until time 10:15.
I talked with Fareed Zakaria from about 10:30 until about 21:00. The discussion is about vocational training, manufacturing startups, immigration, and whether a second age of reform is in view. In the final 90 seconds I make my best “here is what it all means” case. After that, you have the actually famous people on the show! They are the Indian magnate Mukesh Ambani and actor Shah Rukh Khan.
Before closing with another shot of Duluth, here is a note from reader Ron Davison that captures some of the impression we are trying to convey:
When I began business travel about 20 years ago, I would often come back home to San Diego so thankful that I didn't live in the place that I'd just visited. Now, as often as not, I leave a place feeling a little wistful about not getting to live there, or at least to spend more time.
So glad to see something that seems to describe the country I work in rather than the one that shows up on TV.
More of the Loll office in Duluth. The point in the article and the interview is that this resembles something you’d expect to see in San Francisco or Seattle, but it’s in northern Minnesota.
While I’m at it, here is another look at a great short documentary that the Atlantic’s video team shot in Mississippi:
Over the past few years we’ve mentioned many of the positive developments underway in the three counties of northern Mississippi (Lowndes, Clay, and Oktibbeha) collectively known as the “Golden Triangle.” They’re featured in my current cover story; in the video that the Atlantic’s team has produced; in the discussion I had yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS; and in the remarkable student essays that my wife Deb has collected from high school students at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science (MSMS) in Columbus. The two latest offerings from MSMS students are here and here. Earlier ones are here. I promise you won’t regret the few minutes it takes to look at them.
All of the places we’ve reported on, like the country they’re part of, have a mixture of good and bad trends. Columbus is now coping with its local version of the racial police-violence problems being brought to light nationwide.
Last October, a white Columbus police officer named Canyon Boykin shot and killed a black Columbus resident named Ricky Ball. The shooting was on a Friday night, after a traffic stop (for broken tail light). You can read the background in this story soon after the shooting from the Columbus Dispatch, and this follow-up.
Since then the situation has grown more complicated and much more bitter. In two recent stories for the Guardian, here and here, Matt Kessler of the University of Mississippi has written about the police department’s contradictory reports about the case, and about the lawsuit that Boykin, the police officer who was fired after the shooting, has filed alleging that his treatment reflects anti-white racial bias.
Even so [despite the increased nationwide focus on white-on-black police violence], Ball's shooting death likely would never have hit the national radar were it not for a lethargic, tight-lipped response by city leaders compounded by sloppy handling of the evidence, including the presence of two, seemingly contradictory incident reports that were distributed to separate media.
As a result, what might have been regarded as a tragic incident has become fodder for those who see something sinister in how the case has been handled, casting doubt on the credibility of local officials, and by extension, reflecting poorly on the entire community.
Suddenly, the local/regional story has found a national audience.
I offer this not to provide any original information or authoritative insight on the case but rather to note an important development in a community we have highlighted. Also I suggest another look at the final few minutes of this video from Mississippi, in which an influential NAACP and labor-union leader in the region, Lewis O’Dneal, talks about what has changed in the region, and not, during his lifetime from the segregation era onward. He appears starting around time 7:35 of the video below.
1) On Point. I spoke today with Tom Ashbrook of WBUR and his On Point audience, about my contention (in the current cover story) that even in this time of wage stagnation, political paralysis, and growing inequality, more is happening at the local level than most Americans realize. You can find the whole show here or listen below.
I valued this conversation because for the first half-hour Ashbrook (whom I’ve known since we were correspondents in Japan in the 1980s) asked me in six different ways: Really, how can what you’re saying be true? Then in the second half callers asked their versions of the same question.
All this gave me a chance to try six+ different presentations of points that seem contradictory but, according to me, are simultaneously true.
One is that the United States is suffering the strains of a Second Gilded age, in ways ranging from increasing inequality to decreasing faith in national institutions of any sort (except the military).
Another is that at the same time, many organizations, institutions, localities, and other groups are finding ways to adapt more successfully to these circumstances — and that the news of their record is under-represented in our sense-of-America in these times.
And precisely because national-level responses to these strains are logjammed for the foreseeable future, it’s worth recognizing what alternatives we have.
In the article I quote Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, to similar effect:
“In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation,” Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and a director of a recent Markle Foundation initiative called “Rework America,” told me. “There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”
2) Berdoo. Over the past year-plus Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about San Bernardino — recently the focus of international attention, but long before that a community with as challenging a combination of economic and political obstacles as any in the country.
Here are two positive recent stories about the city. One, in the NYT, covers the group Generation Now (which we’ve frequently written about), plus others active in public arts as part of San Bernardino’s civic revival.
The other is the opening of a craft brewery in San Bernardino: Brew Rebellion, which three days ago had its grand opening in what was once the commissary of the former Norton Air Force Base, now San Bernardino International Airport. The San Bernardino Sun wrote all about it here. As the Sun story said:
The “Berdoo” location is small compared to most breweries, but the dedication to quality is an obsession to owner/head brewer, Andy Sutfin.
“We are happy to be here in San Bernardino and other brewers who questioned whether our town is a craft beer town, have found out they were wrong,” Sutfin said.
Congrats San Bernardino! (For why Brew Rebellion’s move is a good sign, see #11 on this list.)
When I was living in and reporting from China, I spent a lot of time trying to hammer this point home: whatever you might say about China — good or bad, friendly or hostile — there was some place in the country where it was true, and also some place where its opposite was true. Thus embracing China’s contradictory realities was not some minor fine-tuning detail but a starting-point necessity in thinking about the place. In case you haven’t read China Airborne, a further riff on this theme comes after the jump.*
Today’s America is not quite as contradictory as China. Yes, the U.S. has extreme poverty and growing inequality; but no, we don’t have a peasant population in the hundreds of millions. But America is complex and contradictory enough. Thus the message of my current cover story involves this superficially contradictory sequence:
The United States is suffering the ills of the Second Gilded Age, as it is distorted by the same pressures toward inequality and dislocation that affect virtually every society today.
Despite point #1, America’s overall prospects remain better than any other major country’s. That’s because of scale, resources, adaptability, geographic advantage, education (yes), research-and-entrepreneurship culture, “soft power,” openness to immigration, and lots more.
Despite point #2, the main American weakness, in both relative and absolute terms, is that our system of national government is at a historic ebb in effectiveness. That’s particularly troublesome now, because adapting to the turbulence of this era would be so much easier and less destructive with some national policies, like those that accompanied the adjustment to the previous Gilded Age. Then it was: worker-safety and child-labor laws, the minimum wage, unionization. Now: portability of health care, pensions, lifelong training, and other benefits as the “gig economy” replaces the long-term one-company career.
Despite point #3, lots of American families, organizations, and communities are figuring out their own responses to this era’s opportunities and problems. These are worth noticing in their own right; and as they accumulate, they can provide a guide for national action — if such a thing should become possible again.
With that, bring on Warren Buffett! Today’s NYT has a story about Buffett’s annual shareholder letter for Berkshire Hathaway. The Times headline conveys the contrast with today’s political rhetoric.
The whole thing is worth reading (in PDF here), but let highlight these two resonant parts. You’ll see why I noticed them.
First, on the overall U.S. prospect:
It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.
That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.
And he goes on to explain why he thinks so.
Then, the complication:
The productivity gains that I’ve just spelled out – and countless others that have been achieved in America – have delivered awesome benefits to society….
To this thought there are offsets. First, the productivity gains achieved in recent years have largely benefitted the wealthy.
Second, productivity gains frequently cause upheaval: Both capital and labor can pay a terrible price when innovation or new efficiencies upend their worlds. We need shed no tears for the capitalists (whether they be private owners or an army of public shareholders). It’s their job to take care of themselves….
A long-employed worker faces a different equation. When innovation and the market system interact to produce efficiencies, many workers may be rendered unnecessary, their talents obsolete. Some can find decent employment elsewhere; for others, that is not an option….
The answer in such disruptions is not the restraining or outlawing of actions that increase productivity. Americans would not be living nearly as well as we do if we had mandated that 11 million people should forever be employed in farming. The solution, rather, is a variety of safety nets aimed at providing a decent life for those who are willing to work but find their specific talents judged of small value because of market forces. (I personally favor a reformed and expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that would try to make sure America works for those willing to work.) The price of achieving ever-increasing prosperity for the great majority of Americans should not be penury for the unfortunate.
So: the U.S. prospects are better than most people think, and unrecognizably better than “we are doomed!” campaign rhetoric insists. Check! And even a growing economy leaves too many people out—who for moral, political, social, and economic reasons must be brought back in. Check again!
The Buffett-Fallows mind meld is complete. Well, apart from the picking-shrewd-investments part.
And if you don’t trust Warren Buffett on U.S. economic fundamentals? Here’s the 2015 year-end economic outlook from Vanguard (emphasis in original):
At full employment, the U.S. economy is unlikely to accelerate this year, yet is on course to experience its longest expansion in nearly a century, underscoring our long-held view of its resiliency.
As in past outlooks, we maintain that U.S. long-term (potential) GDP growth is near 2%, versus its historical average of 3.25% since 1950. This lowered projection is based on demographic headwinds and, to a lesser extent, on a more subdued expectation for labor productivity growth. However, we see our 2% U.S. trend growth estimation as neither “new” nor “subpar” relative to pre-crisis levels, if one both accounts for structurally lower population growth and removes the consumer debt-fueled boost to growth between 1980 and the global financial crisis that began in 2007.
*As promised, here is how I introduced the contradictions theme in the introduction to China Airborne:
The main surprise of living in China, as opposed to reading or hearing about it, is how much it is a loose assemblage of organizations and aspects and subcultures, an infinity of self- enclosed activities, rather than a “country” in the normal sense. The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.
Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky. Its leaders are skillful and clumsy, supple and stubborn, visionary and foolishly shortsighted….
Such observations may sound banal—China, land of contrasts!—but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckon- ing with China and its rise.
I knew the president had clear and straightforward talking points—I’d written them.
One phone call changed my life.
On Thursday, July 25, 2019, I was seated at the table in one of the two Situation Rooms in the basement of the West Wing. The bigger room is famous from movies and TV shows, but this room is smaller, more typically businesslike: a long wooden table with 10 chairs, maybe a dozen more chairs against wood-paneled walls, and a massive TV screen. This was the room where President Barack Obama and his team watched a feed of the Osama bin Laden raid. This morning, the screen was off. We were all focused intently on the triangular conference-call speaker in the middle of the table. President Donald Trump’s communications team was placing a call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and we were there to listen.
Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived.
Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.
Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.
A recent arrival at the International Space Station created a little too much excitement.
Mission control in Houston first noticed it Thursday morning.
The International Space Station was drifting. The station is always moving, of course, in a looping trajectory around Earth. But this, what mission control was seeing in the latest data, was unexpected, and unnerving. On Thursday morning, the space station was suddenly and mysteriously deviating from its course.
The massive pieces of NASA-built hardware that hold the space station in place couldn’t keep up with the motion, and within minutes, the station had been thrown out of its usual orientation.
NASA quickly turned to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. To counter the shift, Moscow’s mission control commanded one of its modules on the space station to ignite its engines, then instructed a cargo ship to fire its thrusters too. Inside the station, astronauts reconfigured important systems. Twice, ground control lost communications with the crew for several minutes. The longer the space station remained off track, the more scrambled its operations, including the communication system and solar panels, could become.
If you can shrug it off as just another incident of Trump talking too much, then you have already signed up for the next incident—and the one after that.
While he was president of the United States, Donald Trump tried to overthrow the election of 2020, first by fraud, then by violence. His efforts were defeated in great part because of the integrity and courage of state-level Republican officials.
Half a year has now passed since supporters of the president stormed Congress in an effort to coerce Vice President Mike Pence to declare Trump the winner of the 2020 election. In that time, honest and brave state Republican officials have been reviled, condemned, and punished by their own party.
The president was impeached, but most Republicans in the House voted against the impeachment, and most in the Senate voted to acquit. Trump has otherwise to date escaped all consequences for his attempted destruction of the Constitution. He remains the Republican Party’s best fundraiser, and the clear front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
I carried on for more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t see the next plague coming.
After the end of the world, there will be birdsong. I used to imagine this when everything was going awry. I would lie in bed in my college dorm room and listen to the lone mockingbird who sang all night outside my window in the spring months. I was worried about something or other; he was getting on with things. It’s what birds do. They have a knack for it. In the Book of Genesis, after the devastation of the Earth by God’s cataclysmic flood, Noah releases from his ark a dove; he knows that the trial has ended when the bird does not return, having alighted somewhere out in the damp and dreary world, the first land-dwelling creature to begin the work of carrying on.
What else is there to do? When COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, late in the winter of 2020, I told myself as much. In plagues, as in life, there is a morally arbitrary hierarchy of luck, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my family and I were among the lucky ones. I was in my late 20s, hale and hearty, my husband the same plus a couple of years. Our children were young—our baby was, in fact, under a year old, something I eventually mentioned in a meekly anxious aside to a doctor I was interviewing for a story on the emerging pandemic. He acknowledged certain risks in the way that doctors do, and then said: “Don’t worry. Kids are kicking ass with this thing.” I was both comforted and chastened; this wasn’t mine to panic about. The best I could do for those in peril was to carry on.
In the time I spent with Mike Lindell, I came to learn that he is affable, devout, philanthropic—and a clear threat to the nation.
When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.
Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.
Two students went to Amy Chua for advice. That sin would cost them dearly.
Every striver who ever slipped the rank of their birth to ascend to a higher order has shared the capacity to ingratiate themselves with their betters. What the truly exceptional ones have in common is the ability to connect not only with their superiors but also with their peers and inferiors. And only the rarest talents among them can bond authentically—not just transactionally—with the people who will help them be who they want to be in the world. It’s a preternatural, almost Promethean gift if you have it, and Amy Chua does.
Thus begins the scandal dubbed “dinner-party-gate,” the latest in the annals of Amy Chua, Yale Law’s very own Tiger Mom, whose infamous defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the “dinner-party-gate” of its day approximately three years ago. Then, as now, Chua’s differences with some denizens of her milieu played out in the press, vituperations, allegations, insinuations, and all.
Instead of propelling students into the middle class, many public institutions such as the University of Alabama are leaving them saddled with large loans.
Weeks into his freshman year at the Marion Military Institute, a public two-year college in Alabama, Thomas was bored. The campus, in the sleepy, hard-luck town of Marion, lacked the glitzy amenities of modern-day universities. To escape the institute’s starchy military uniforms and rigid schedule, Thomas would jump in his truck on weekends and head to Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama.
The University of Alabama had a meticulously groomed campus and stately redbrick buildings whose white colonnades conveyed scholastic gravitas. It had the championship-caliber Crimson Tide football team and legendary game-day tailgating with students swilling beer on fraternity-house rooftops. It featured amenities such as a state-of-the-art recreation center with a climbing wall and a “lazy river” pool complex with a 30-foot water slide. Fraternities hosted world-class rock concerts. A campus dining hall served steak cooked to order.
Just as concerts return, a new film reveals the cynicism and cultural rot that led to one of the most notorious shows ever.
We’re halfway through the first summer of full-capacity crowds at American arenas and nightclubs after pandemic-induced hibernation. Have you attended a glorious, mythmaking concert to mark the occasion? Perhaps Foo Fighters reopening Madison Square Garden gave you chills, or maybe you air-tromboned to the band Chicago at New Jersey’s first big comeback show (NJ.com’s review: “Enjoyment came in many forms Thursday night”).
Like it or not, the way we work has already evolved.
In 2019, Steven Spielbergcalled for a ban on Oscar eligibility for streaming films, claiming that “movie theaters need to be around forever” and that audiences had to be given “the motion picture theatrical experience” for a movie to be a movie. Spielberg’s fury was about not only the threat that streaming posed to the in-person viewing experience but the ways in which the streaming giant Netflix reported theatrical grosses and budgets, despite these not being the ways in which one evaluates whether a movie is good or not. Netflix held firm, saying that it stood for “everyone, everywhere [enjoying] releases at the same time,” and for “giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” Ultimately, Spielberg balked, and last month his company even signed a deal with Netflix, likely because he now sees the writing on the wall: Modern audiences enjoy watching movies at home.