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 are some generally positive developments from places we’ve visited in our travels.
Fresno: This evening Fresno, California, held its big “State of Downtown” event. You can see the details here. As we’ve reported over the years, Fresno’s bet on re-doing its downtown, made by Mayor Ashley Swearengin and many of the local business and civic leaders, is one of the most consequential in the country. You can hear tonight the update on how it’s going. Here’s a report on last year’s State of Downtown event.
Allentown: Allentown, Pennsylvania, is two or three years ahead of Fresno on the downtown renovation cycle. In common with many other places we’ve been, it has an ambitious manufacturing-oriented startup/incubator zone, known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.
Bridgeworks has just released a report on the new businesses that have started there. You can read it here. There’s some much less positive news also coming out of Allentown, as you can read here. We’ll go back there to follow up.
As we’ve described in previous visits and in the latest article, Duluth, Minnesota, has gone from being a grain, timber, and ore metropolis of yesteryear, plus model for Zenith city in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, to being a center of aerospace tech, health care, and outdoors-tourism. Early this month Cirrus aircraft, main player in the regional aerospace business, announced an expansion that will bring 150 additional manufacturing jobs in the city, for a total of 825 inside Duluth.
For the record, Cirrus is now owned by the Chinese aerospace ministry (for reasons described in China Airborne); produces the best-selling airplane of its type in the world (which is the one we’ve been flying around the country on our project_; and also has operations in Grand Forks, North Dakota and, soon, Knoxville, Tennessee.
As mentioned in some earlier dispatches, the American Prairie Reserve This is an ambitious, idealistic, “market-minded environmentalist” approach restoring a Serengeti-sized area of northern Montana grassland to the flora and fauna that were there more than 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark traversed the area. Late last year Peter Geddes, managing director of the APR, described it and similar efforts by environmental entrepreneurs as “the Yellowstones of the future” in a very interesting long piece for the NYT.
The long-term vision for the reserve includes offering local ranchers higher prices for their beef, to be sold under the premium Wild Sky label, if they raise their cattle in “wildlife-friendly” ways that allow the return of bison, elk, prairie dogs, and ultimately predators like wolves and cougars; collaborating with tribes from the very large adjoining reservations, Fort Belknap to the west and Fort Peck to the east; and, significantly, continuing buy land as it becomes available and returning it to nature-reserve use.
In the past few weeks the APR has announced a series of major gifts to its “Land of Legacy” program, of donations for land acquisition and improving the reserve. My point is not to sell you on the reserve, though I’ve ended up being impressed by the way its creators are trying to balance an array of overlapping interests: economic, environmental, ranching-family traditional, tribal and far-more-traditional, local-versus-global, etc. Mainly I am noting their continued progress toward their announced goal.
“Almost everything we have is a disaster,” a leading presidential candidate said today, referring to the nation he hopes to lead. You may be surprised to learn that the claim is not correct.
We’re back to followup on my March issue story about local-level civic coherence, even at a time of the worst national-level dysfunction in at least a century. Here goes:
1. Salt Lake City: Can’t We Just Get Along?
Until now, I’ve always considered myself on good terms with the “Crossroads of the West,” also known as SLC. Since my first visit there on a Boy Scout trip, I’ve returned many times. My wife Deb and I have put in visiting stints at both Brigham Young University, in Provo, and at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City itself. It’s a great place!
Thus naturally my feelings were hurt by the headline below from the Daily Utah Chronicle, over a story by Emma Tanner:
A follow-up article by Tanner is here, making the case that Salt Lake City stands up well on an official 11-point Checklist For Civic Success. No offense meant! We have another season of reporting-travel coming up this summer and fall and might be in the vicinity. Meanwhile I salute the spirit with which Tanner closes out her series, especially the wry final line.
Fallows’ fourth point [on the checklist] addresses whether people in an area understand and “know the civic story.” Again, the LDS church has made its claim and created a clear identity. Not only do Utah residents know, for the most part, what role the Mormons have played in establishing and sustaining successful state operations through an interesting and sometimes twisted history, but people around the globe know Utah for its Mormons, for better or worse….
Lastly, points five and eleven address whether the city has a downtown and craft breweries. An obvious and distinct downtown is necessary because it is considered the “bones” of the city, the reflection of everything the area represents and stands for. Its appearance and functionality matter, and Salt Lake City has, in my opinion, one of the nicest downtowns I’ve ever seen. It’s clean, airy, has great proximity to everything (mountains, resorts, recreation, freeways, other major state cities, etc.), and is well-organized and managed. Craft breweries matter as an indicator of entrepreneurship and appeal to young people. Utah, as of now, has more than ten craft breweries, which my twenty-year-old self hears are pretty great.
2) “Does Knoxville Have What it Takes?” A very nice piece by Alan Sims, who writes as “Urban Guy” for Inside of Knoxville, on how the capital of eastern Tennessee measures up. I was particularly interested in this part, about what I’d listed as the #9 trait of successful cities we’d seen: that they “make themselves open.”
[The checklist said:] “The anti-immigrant passion that has inflamed this election cycle was not something people expressed in most of the cities we visited. On the contrary, politicians, educators, business people, students and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people . . . Every small town in America has thought about how to offset the natural brain drain that has historically sent its brightest young people elsewhere. The same emphasis on inclusion that makes a town attractive to talented outsiders increases its draw to its own natives.”
[Fallows] mentions that the mayor of Greenville, SC pointed out how many languages are heard on the sidewalks in that city, which is something I’ve often commented on in my articles about our city. I think the frequency of just that is increasing in Knoxville.
On this front I think our mayor has been particularly keen in welcoming everyone and framing that into city policy. Our state and county doesn’t always help matters. I’m thinking of incidents like Sheriff JJ Jones threatening to “stack immigrants like cord wood,” in jail. That doesn’t help. Still, in speaking specifically of the city, I think we do well on this variable.
I’ve met the mayor of Knoxville, Madeline Rogero, and agree about what she is trying to do in the city. We’ll try to take a closer look soon. (Thanks to Knoxville resident and longtime friend Neil McBride for the tip.)
3) On the difficulty of properly registering areas of progress and retrogress at the civic and national level, consider this short note from reader Jerry Glynn of Illinois:
I was in Chicago for two days and one night recently from Urbana IL, where my wife and I live and where are four kids grew up.
I looked out our hotel window and saw three of the many bridges across the river and remembered that almost all of the old bridges in town had been rebuilt, one by one, in the past 15 years. Beautiful and important work. But no stories in the struggling newspapers remind us of this most important work. No politician is getting regular credit for pushing this work through. Too bad.
Let’s get back to some positive news — actually, let’s connect the positive news I’m about to give, to the drear of domestic U.S. political news that consumes us all.
In today’s NYT Magazine, Adam Davidson has an excellent and fresh analysis of the way Donald Trump talks about both business and international affairs. For Trump it’s all win or lose, smart or dumb, they’re screwing us and we have to start screwing them. The underlying reason, Davidson points out, is that Trump comes from a part of the business world that is abnormally “rent-seeking” (in the economist’s sense) and zero-sum: the world of Manhattan real estate.
There is only so much space to build in Manhattan, there are only so many permits to be had, only so many ways you can “be disruptive” or “change the world” through a real estate deal. What you can do, as Davidson points out, is get a little bigger slice of the pie for yourself, which leaves a little less for the other guy — making you the winner and the other guy the loser. This view underlies the way Trump talks about everything. Davidson says:
Manhattan real estate development is about as far as it is possible to get, within the United States, from that Econ 101 notion of mutually beneficial transactions.
This is not a marketplace characterized by competition and dynamism; instead, Manhattan real estate looks an awful lot more like a Middle Eastern rentier economy. It is a hereditary system. We talk about families, not entrepreneurs. A handful of families have dominated the city’s real estate development for decades: Speyer, Tishman, Durst, Fisher, Malkin, Milstein, Resnick, LeFrak, Rose, Zeckendorf. Having grown up in Manhattan myself, I think of these names the way I heard Middle Easterners speak of the great sheikhs who ran big families in Jordan, Iraq and Syria. These are people of immense power and influence, but their actual skills and abilities are opaque. They do, however, make ‘‘deals.’’
Of course deals matter at every level, from haggling at a bazaar to striking a nuclear arms-control agreement. But in the parts of economic and social life where new things are being created, the deal is the means, not the end itself. The founders of Apple and of Google, of Disney and of WalMart, of Tesla and of Nike and whatever example you’d choose, are aware of deals. But none of them began with the deal centrally in mind. The business, the product, the disruption, the creation were what originally fascinated and motivated them. The deals protected what they’d figured out. But figuring it out, and then making it happen, was the attraction and challenge.
Understanding the impulses behind entrepreneurship and creativity, and the practical circumstances that make these efforts more or less attainable, really matters for a society. It matters much more than “making good deals.” It matters because of the reality underscored in the Kauffman Foundation research that I mention in my March issue cover story, and the updated report that Kauffman put out last month.
Those reports emphasized that if a society wants more jobs, it needs to keep fostering more new companies. That is because of the non-obvious but well-substantiated point that, in toto, virtually all the growth in jobs come from companies in their first few years of existence. Big businesses have big payrolls, but taken as a group, long-established companies are laying off as many people as they’re hiring. Thus putting more people to work means reducing the practical barriers between having an idea and starting a small company.
All this is the background to news in the NYT last month that the young Collison brothers of Ireland, John and Patrick, who together have founded the online payments system Stripe, had introduced a new feature designed to make it easier for entrepreneurs around the world to reach a global market. The feature is called Stripe Atlas, and you can see info and watch a video about it here. (For the record: I have met John and Patrick Collison of Stripe, and their journalist-brother Tommy, in San Francisco but have no connection to the company beyond being interested in its idea.)
The new Stripe Atlas features may not sound like much. Essentially, they offer a low-cost way for small businesses around the world to set up a presence in the U.S. financial and banking system. For a fee of $500, the companies get a U.S. bank account, so they can accept payments in U.S. dollars; a U.S. corporate identity, as a Delaware corporation, of course; and U.S. tax registration and tax/legal advice. As a result of these changes and some others, an entrepreneur in Egypt or Turkey or Ghana or Poland is able to operate as if it had a U.S. branch, which previously only much larger companies would have been able to afford. As Patrick Collison explained in an email:
The nuts and bolts of the business infrastructure was the hardest part
of getting started for them. Now, entrepreneurs across more than 170
countries (with a combined population of 6 billion people!) can get
access to the same business infrastructure enjoyed by technology
companies across the US and Europe.
One obvious question is: Does any of this matter? To see how it might, consider other mundane-seeming changes that profoundly changed the terrain of opportunity. A generation ago, FedEx and Express Mail allowed small companies to do what previously had required a large corporation’s shipping department. A decade ago, easy web-creation and blogging tools allowed anyone to establish an online presence. The worldwide ATM network, along with international credit-card acceptance, has greatly streamlined the previously headache-filled process of dealing with foreign currencies. None of these is particularly “interesting” as a concept, but cumulatively they’ve had a profound effect.
The other potential Trump-era American question, or reaction, is: Oh no! One more tool for the foreigners!! Without making the whole case right now, I think that reflects the Manhattan deal-maker’s zero-sum mentality, as opposed to the way businesses and opportunities are really developing around the world and in the United States. No American jobs are going to be “taken” by the little Egyptian or Turkish startups you see in some of the Atlas videos. While I’m a long-time skeptic of the automatic benefits of globalized trade, everything I’ve seen over the decades tells me that helping dispersed entrepreneurs like these (versus large state industries) will be good for them, good for their countries, good for the world, and good for the United States.
Now, applying this to the news of the day: For more than half a century, the U.S. embargo of Cuba has made it illegal for U.S.-based entities to do business of almost any sort there. But in the preparation for President Obama’s visit to Cuba starting today, this past week the Treasury relaxed some of those regulations — specifically including ones that affected the Stripe Atlas features. As Harry McCracken reported this week in Fast Company:
“A few weeks ago, the White House reached out to us,” says John Collison, who cofounded Stripe in 2010 with his brother Patrick. As the White House had been making plans for the new banking policies and next week's trip, "people on the ground in Cuba suggested the president check out this Atlas thing," Collison told me.
After hearing from the Obama administration, Stripe moved quickly to prep a version of the service it could offer in Cuba.
That’s part of what is going on in Havana right now — and other sites in the United States and around the world. I hope to speak with some of Stripe’s Cuba-based team this week, and will follow up.
In the meantime, this is an example of the adaptive, creative, entrepreneurial activity underway in so many more places than usually make it onto the media radar. And since the Collisons are also an aviation family, I must close with one of the pictures Patrick has posted via Twitter, of flying his own little airplane from Miami to Havana yesterday.
An en route picture:
And on the ground in Cuba, with Patrick Collison on the left.
To wrap this up: the nastiest part of our political dialogue has been based on a fixed-pie, I-win/you-lose version of economic life that might make sense in New York real estate deal making, but which (I think) deeply misunderstands the most important trends in the “real” economy. Those trends are part of what we’re trying to report.
A big theme of our March issue cover stories (main story here; “11 signs of success” checklist; “Library Card”) is that one the bleakest aspect of modern America is the one now dominating the headlines: the dysfunction and bitterness in our national-level politics. The bleakness of that theme is unfortunately what I’ve been writing about through the past week (for instance here).
Back toward the light! To break up the Götterdämmerung chronicles of our national struggle, here come some more reports on the local level. This weekend, my wife Deb reported on the way that public libraries were converting themselves into “maker spaces”—and recapturing some of Benjamin Franklin’s original vision.
Today, some connected reports, starting with ones on the reverse big sort.
In my article I mentioned that even as certain industries were concentrating in the big coastal centers, regional centers were also re-populating. People who had trained, worked, and lived in San Francisco or New York decided that the better overall life balance could be found in Duluth or Greenville or Fresno or Bend. On that theme, here’s an update on the expansion of the aerospace center that has emerged in Duluth, spawned by Cirrus; and another about startups at the Bridgework Enterprise Center in Allentown.
Now a note that arrived from Igor Ferst, who recently moved from S.F. to Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is of course a relatively large city, #15 by population in the United States. It’s also the home of the Ohio State university and the state’s capitol and government offices. But for media purposes it’s in flyover territory and is featured mainly during political events (like today’s primary) or for sports news. Also, in our reports from there, we emphasized the city’s consciousness of being just the right size: big enough to offer just about anything, small and manageable enough to get things done.
From Igor Ferst:
Your reporting in the March issue on the civic and economic revival you encountered in your travels to small and medium-sized cities across America resonated with me immensely, as my wife and I are young professionals in the software business who recently chose to relocate to Columbus, OH after four years in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The biggest improvement to our quality of life is not a lower median house price (though that doesn’t hurt). Rather, it is a sense of freedom that comes from finding personal and professional fulfillment in a vibrant and welcoming city, away from the Bay Area’s grinding commutes and careerist, status-obsessed culture.
I hope other young professionals read your story and start judging cities not by their wealthiest or most famous residents, but by those people quietly working to bring a shared prosperity to the community they love.
Similarly, on Facebook a tech figure named Morgan Fitzgibbons has been chronicling his move from San Francisco back to his original home of Toledo, Ohio. (Both of these items are in honor of the Ohio primary today.) I was particularly interested in his interview with Hoodline, in San Francisco, before he left (emphasis added):
Tell us a little bit about why you're leaving.
The short answer is cost of living. You cannot have creative community in a city that is exorbitantly expensive. It could work if the people with all the money gave to the things that needed to be supported, but unfortunately, that's not the case.
The ceiling in Toledo is much higher for me. It's dirt-cheap to live, and we can really create something special there. For example, there's a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Toledo in really great shape, and it's for sale for $175K. You put a down payment on that, and the mortgage is $1,000 a month. That's the kind of opportunity you're never going to get here.
Unlike when I moved here, San Francisco's not the only place anymore where it's okay to smoke weed and be gay. There's been a big cultural shift in the rest of the country in the past few years. The thing that drew me to San Francisco is because it's where my people were, but it's no longer the only place.
To be clear about this: America is a big, complex place, and through its history people have always been moving back and forth, metropolis to countryside to suburb and back again. The point in emphasizing the activity in the Columbuses, the Fresnos, the Allentowns, the Toledos is that their activity has gotten less attention than it deserves.
Finally for today, a new story in PS magazine — formally Pacific Standard, formerly Miller-McCune, and for the record a publication with many ties to the Atlantic. (Its current editor is Atlantic alumnus Nicholas Jackson; its previous editor was Maria Streshinsky, once our managing editor here and now at Mother Jones; before her was my friend John Mecklin, now of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Also for the record, the story I’m about to mention originated with the New America Foundation, which I helped create. Its author, Chayenne Polimédio, is a current New America researcher.)
This new PS story, called “And Now For Some Good News About America,” makes a case that I obviously sympathize with. Namely, that our all-too-obvious national level dysfunction coexists with, and masks, lower-level civic health. For example:
In fact, despite plummeting levels of confidence in government, Gastil and Lukensmeyer [John Gastil of Penn State and Carol Lukensmyer of Arizona] see a new trend of people wanting to be part of the solution.
And yes, people might not have the time to stay up-to-date on government affairs at all times; they might not always care. But when they do, and when they believe that there is real skin the in the game, and get to interact with the government in a substantial way, as Russon-Gilman [Hollie Russon-Gilman of New America] explains, things change.
But how can we give people that extra push that will make them care about what goes on in their community? …
For Lukensmeyer, it comes down to remembering that humans are social beings. We respond to the structures and signals in which we exist. Our response to a certain issue largely depends on how that issue is framed, who is in the room with us when we have that conversation, and to what extent we can manage to keep a civil discourse regardless of likeness of opinion.
More details follow, leading up to:
We need to stop fetishizing leadership; we need to get up from the couch and go to our city hall meetings; we need to talk to our neighbors; and we need to start carrying our own weight in governing ourselves. John Adams, in a letter to a friend, recognized that the glorification of leadership was a hindrance to democratic progress: "The country won't improve," he said, "until the people begin to consider themselves as the fountain of power."...
We can, at the very least, say that, if we're tired of hearing that America is broken, we ourselves can start talking about how to fix it.
Probably a better message to reflect on that whatever we hear this evening about the Ohio and Florida results. (Thanks to Titus Levi for the PS tip.)
Last night the PBS NewsHourran a 10-minute segment hosted by Judy Woodruff and shot in Greenville, South Carolina, where Deb and I have visited frequently and reported extensively over the past few years. A magazine article I did comparing the politically very conservative Greenville with the politically very liberal Burlington, Vermont, is here. Deb’s original and later stories on Greenville’s very innovative public schools are here, here, and here. A full collection of our Greenville and related South Carolina reportage is here.
I thought this NewsHour report did a very effective job of conveying a range of things we’ve seen in Greenville and elsewhere, and that Deb and I have written about in the March issue. Including:
how this part of the former textile zone prepared for the disappearance of that industry, and survived it; how a state with a very troubled racial history develops cross-racial institutions and organizations; how a region considered to be backward in public schooling has developed some of the most creative public schools in the country; how and why governance can function well locally, when it is paralyzed at the national level; how the inequalities and strains of the Second Gilded Age persist; and so on, including some aviation footage.
See for yourself! (A PBS embed is after the jump.) If you haven’t been to Greenville, I think you’ll be particularly surprised by the scenes from the very large (and racially diverse) Redemption Church, and from the Elementary School for Engineering and the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, among others. We appreciate the effort the NewsHour team put into this production, including filming during atypically frigid conditions in Greenville last month.
The GOP/Fox last night was genuinely depressing. Donald Trump has brought the other candidates down to his level, in the process of demolishing the Republican party. No living American has seen anything like what is happening to the GOP this year, because the last time a national party split apart in such an apparently fundamental way was in the mid-19th century, with the self-destruction of the Whigs.
Meta-point: our two-party national politics and our national governing system are for-real in trouble, as I argued here and here. While they flounder, a damage-limiting step is to identify what parts of the American system are still working, and what might be done to expand their recognition and impact.
Three notes on this front:
1) The latest update by my wife Deb, about an innovative and encouraging public middle-school in Greeville, South Carolina. This follows her “America’s tiniest engineers” report on an innovation elementary school in Greenville. (Also, please see this Economist article on our reports and a new book by Antoine van Agtmael.)
2) A note from a reader in Irvine, California, about the dangers of a persistent gap between viable local governance and failed national politics:
I've been reading the reactions to your recent article and your follow on commentary in the "notes" section with interest. I've had a few thoughts regarding your reference of Warren Buffet's recent annual letter, the recent Tom Friedman column, and also the themes you've explored during the course of the American Futures project:
I think what you were thinking when you referenced Buffet is in line with what Paul Krugman would call a "Scandinavia lite" approach i.e. a country with open trade policies, flexible labor markets, whose citizens are shielded from the inherent uncertainty of such a system by a strong safety net that secures essential things like a universal basic income and healthcare for everyone. However, doing this will require intelligent, pragmatic action at the federal level and not at the local, city level. [JF note: agree, as I pointed out.]
A lot of the "Commons" (i.e. transport and communication infrastructure, education/training, basic and applied research, law enforcement) needed to support entrepreneurship at the local level requires federal action, and when I say federal action in this email, I mean funding as well as enforcement of federal policies.
Local communities, in order to be truly successful, will need to be open, tolerant, diverse, and will need to be able to provide a space where the interests of all have a voice regardless of race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and only federal action can provide a legal basis to ensure this nationwide. [JF: Of course federal policies matter, but there can be a huge and significant place-by-place difference on this front.]
From these points above, I would say that the local-level hybrid solutions that promote competitiveness and resilience will require federal support and action. They can proceed without them of course, but their impact can only be maximized if the appropriate amount of federal support is made available.
In other words, both federal policies that develop the Commons and provide a viable safety net for citizens as well as local hybrid solutions are important, but in the grand equation, the former outweighs the latter.
My main response to these last points is, as I argued at the end of my story: Yes, sure, local efforts bolstered at the national level are more effective than something that is standalone-local. But what is your Plan B? It would be better if we had functioning national politics right now. But we don’t, and it will be a while until that changes. What is the best response until that changes? Might it be something like — hmmm, where have I heard this before? — “think globally, act locally”? More from this reader:
Unfortunately, in our country today, pragmatic, effective, federal action is stymied by the simple fact that one half of our political system has lost its collective mind, and this is where I loop back to your article.
In it, you introduced many wonderful people, many of whom are Republicans working to revitalize their communities. But in another manifestation of Paul Samuelson's adage "people are micro efficient, but macro inefficient", these same folks keep sending some really unhinged people to represent them in the Federal government, and this disconnect for me, is the biggest danger for the country.
It seems like a lot of the Republicans working intelligently to solve problems at the local level just shut off their minds and decide purely on some loosely thought out ideology when it comes to what should happen at the Federal level, and they never seem to see the connection between what they do and how the federal government enables it. I have personally seen this in the companies I've worked at where smart, principled people who are Republicans (e.g. an IT manager) have questioned whether our President is in fact a closet Muslim, or (e.g. a Marketing executive) who have acknowledged the need for universal healthcare just as long as the government doesn't have a hand in it, or (a senior actuary at my current company) have questioned whether the ACA is working even as they've seen company enrollment and financial performance improve from gains made in the main ACA programs, or (my old boss) have completely forgotten the lessons of Iraq and wondered why we don't just send troops into Syria and Iraq and Libya to teach people why they shouldn't mess with us.
Trump is the reductio ad absurdum scenario for the tactics the GOP has adopted over these last eight years, but it only did that because Republican voters (like many of the folks represented in your article) rewarded them for this behavior or at the very least did not punish the party for it...
You would think that more and more, people engaged in local level experiments to improve the quality of life in their communities would gravitate to a similar party at the federal level, but I don't see that happening. In fact, every year the GOP becomes even more extreme and crazy, and if they ever get a chance to implement their "platform", the resulting dislocation and pain will overwhelm any hybrid local initiative or solution. These two opposing realities - local level success stories and federal level horror story - cannot exist concurrently indefinitely...sooner or later one dynamic will subsume the other.
That's why as long as the dysfunction at the federal level remains, I'm a lot more skeptical that the community level revitalization you've reported on will scale into a national story . Hope I'm wrong.
This is of course the first-principles question about the next stage in American political evolution and survival, and the one I tried to address in the final part of my article. More to come — over the weeks, and the years — on this theme.
3) Last for today, here is entrepreneur, boat-builder, and charter-boat captain David Ryan, who has appeared over the years in this space,
On the "Everything's getting worse and so what" front.
The first job I ever had as a fully independent freelance commercial photographer happened to be in the television section of a Medford OR appliance store at the height of the post-Rodney King verdict riots in LA. All around me on dozens of screens large and small were images of LA going up in flames.
About a year later I had decided that I needed to move to New York and somewhere in there a senator from a southern state was going on about how it was the end American greatness, and something about the fall of Rome. This was in the very early Nineties, so all the prosperity of and optimism of the Clinton years were will ahead of us.
"End of the America? Fall of Rome?" I recalled my trip to Italy a few years earlier and how nice Rome was and I thought living in a fallen empire isn't as bad as people make it out to be, and when I got to New York I named my company Crumbling Empire Productions.
I did business under that name for about 10 years, until the Spring of 2002 when I was asked to produce a documentary about 9/11, and it seemed in bad taste to have "Crumbling Empire Productions" in the credits. I retired the name.
Back in Oregon I was a modestly active member in the Medford Chamber of Commerce, and one of the things I learned is just as everyone's blood is red, every American's money is green, and when you're doing business with people, whether it's selling them services they need (like photography) or business stuff you need, conducting mutually beneficial commerce with other people goes along way to helping, if not see their people of view, at least see past their point of view.
Are their limits to that? Sure. But I've never ever had anyone refuse to do business with me because we disagreed on what the top income tax rate should be, or what our nations policy vis a vis Serbia or Syria should be. Yes, I've heard (and said!) intemperate things about abortion, guns, gays, etc. But you know what? That's never stopped money from exchanging hands either, and the fact that money was changing hands probably restrained the conversation to the level of strong disagreement rather than vile outburst.
Are we at the end of American preeminence? I don't know. We weren't 25 years ago. I don't think we are now. I don't care. I've 15 people working for me building a boat I expect (hope) will take thousands of people out each summer for many summers to come. And if the empire really is crumbling, if things really do get worse than they are in Rome today, I'll get on my boat and sail some where I like better.
… what will be required to produce resilient citizens and communities [is] forcing a politics that is much more of a hybrid of left and right.
It is the kind of politics you already see practiced in successful communities and towns in America — places like Minneapolis; Austin, Tex.; Louisville, Ky.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Portland, Ore. — where coalitions made up of the business community, educators and local government come together to forge hybrid solutions to improve their competitiveness and resilience. We can’t get there at the national level since one of our two major parties has gone nuts and we have designed paralysis into our politics.
Sounds right to me! This is very much in sync with what my wife Deb and I have seen across the country, and have tried to explain here.
Previously in the Hmmm series:
We’ve seen things that fit Warren Buffett’s world view: America is in way better overall economic shape than the rest of the world, and also has better prospects than political rhetoric suggests. But it needs to do more to help those being hurt and left behind by today’s technological transformations.
We’ve internalized the Robert Wood Johnson / NPR / Harvard study: Americans think the nation’s health care system as a whole is a disaster, but are surprisingly satisfied with the care they get themselves.
We what’ve seen place-by-place parallels the NYT’s observation that while politicians are angrier than ever, many voters (even while casting votes for the likes of Trump) take the longer, calmer view.
And now we’re nodding along with T. Friedman in his observation that local-level governance continues to function—partly because people there don’t have the luxury of becoming purely “shut it down!” obstructionist like the national-level GOP.
This compilation is just to note harmonic resonance among observations that don’t fit the “everything is getting worse” tone of national political discussions. The country has lots of problems, and lots of people figuring out solutions.
In the presidential primary on Tuesday, Texas Republicans seem set to throw themselves behind the two candidates [Trump and Cruz] who are doing all they can to stress the seams, pop the rivets, blow apart whatever counts as unity in 21st-century Texas...One way or another, it looks as if white grievance will finish first and second with the Texas G.O.P.
But on a trip across southeast Texas on the eve of the primary, I met voters who — with an exception or two — did not seem to think they were near any abyss, as Mr. Cruz has warned. At a nostalgically 19th-century event — a rodeo parade on Saturday in Houston — Texans seemed perfectly at ease with the times.
Political rhetoric suggesting that the country is on the verge of collapse, and meanwhile a city-by-city, person-by-person sense that the apocalypse is still quite some distance away — yes indeed! That sounds very much like the country my wife Deb and I have been reporting on and trying to describe in our pages.
This passage by Lawrence Downes resembled many other moments across the country through the past few years:
I watched [the parade] for a while with Kemal Anbarci, a 52-year-old petroleum engineer, born in Turkey, who loves Houston. “I really feel American,” he said. “I feel like I belong here.” He said he voted Republican when he lived in California, but was waiting until after the primary to see who is the most unifying candidate. He called Houston “a wonderful place to be if you are not native-born.” He observed that the riders in the parade were ethnically diverse, but rode in segregated groups. “It’s wonderful,” he said, “but they are in chunks.” He laughed.
Many people are discouraged about America. But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.
This sounds like the old political saw that people hate the Congress but feel better about their own Representative. But it’s different in a significant way.
The hate-the-Congress / like-the- Congressman paradox is based on the tension between locally connected politicians, who by definition know how to make themselves likable to their own constituency, and the Congress as a whole, which everyone can see is polarized and hamstrung. You don’t have to wait to be told that national government is stalemated. You know that it is, because of the nonstop news of shutdowns and faceoffs.
But the NPR / Robert Wood Johnson / Harvard study that is the basis of today’s report parallels what my wife Deb and I have reported about economic, educational, cultural, and social trends across the country. Namely, that people feel more positive about the part of America they directly experience than the other part they hear referred to in political discourse in the news.
“Feel more positive” doesn’t mean “think there are no problems.” The health system, the school system, and every other system is under severe strain. But more people feel more positively about more aspects of the current U.S. scene that you would infer from most coverage, or from virtually any political discourse. Recognizing this point matters not for generating complacency but rather for grasping the possibility of progress. As my current piece says in its conclusion:
When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.
A very interesting graph from the NPR report, showing how views of each person’s own health-care experience vary with income:
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.
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.)
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.
Among the more practical advice that can be offered to international travelers is wisdom of the bathroom. So let me say, as someone who recently returned from China, that you should be prepared to (1) carry your own toilet paper and (2) practice your squat.
I do not mean those goofy chair-less sits you see at the gym. No, toned glutes will not save you here. I mean the deep squat, where you plop your butt down as far as it can go while staying aloft and balanced on the heels. This position—in contrast to deep squatting on your toes as most Americans naturally attempt instead—is so stable that people in China can hold it for minutes and perhaps even hours …
“I’m still very much puzzled about how this is possible."
To survive in the frigid ocean waters around the Arctic and Antarctica, marine life evolved many defenses against the lethal cold. One common adaptation is the ability to make antifreezing proteins (AFPs) that prevent ice crystals from growing in blood, tissues, and cells. It’s a solution that has evolved repeatedly and independently, not just in fish but in plants, fungi, and bacteria.
It isn’t surprising, then, that herrings and smelts, two groups of fish that commonly roam the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, both make AFPs. But it is very surprising, even weird, that both fish do so with the same AFP gene—particularly because their ancestors diverged more than 250 million years ago and the gene is absent from all the other fish species related to them.
Aduhelm, the first new Alzheimer’s drug in 18 years, may not work. But states and Medicare might pay billions of dollars for it anyway.
Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration overruled—to much criticism—its own scientific advisory committee and approved the Alzheimer’s treatment Aduhelm. The agency made this decision despite thin evidence of the drug’s clinical efficacy and despite its serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding. As a result, a serious risk now exists that millions of people will be prescribed a drug that does more harm than good.
Less appreciated is how the drug’s approval could trigger hundreds of billions of dollars of new government spending, all without a vote in Congress or indeed any public debate over the drug’s value. Aduhelm’s manufacturer, Biogen, announced on Monday that it would price the drug at an average of $56,000 a year per patient, a figure that doesn’t include the additional imaging and scans needed to diagnose patients or to monitor them for serious side effects.
“Scientists are meant to know what’s going on, but in this particular case, we are deeply confused.”
Carl Schoonover and Andrew Fink are confused. As neuroscientists, they know that the brain must be flexible but not too flexible. It must rewire itself in the face of new experiences, but must also consistently represent the features of the external world. How? The relatively simple explanation found in neuroscience textbooks is that specific groups of neurons reliably fire when their owner smells a rose, sees a sunset, or hears a bell. These representations—these patterns of neural firing—presumably stay the same from one moment to the next. But as Schoonover, Fink, and others have found, they sometimes don’t. They change—and to a confusing and unexpected extent.
Schoonover, Fink, and their colleagues from Columbia University allowed mice to sniff the same odors over several days and weeks, and recorded the activity of neurons in the rodents’ piriform cortex—a brain region involved in identifying smells. At a given moment, each odor caused a distinctive group of neurons in this region to fire. But as time went on, the makeup of these groups slowly changed. Some neurons stopped responding to the smells; others started. After a month, each group was almost completely different. Put it this way: The neurons that represented the smell of an apple in May and those that represented the same smell in June were as different from each other as those that represent the smells of apples and grass at any one time.
People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.
We understand how this will end. But who bears the risk that remains?
During a pandemic, no one’s health is fully in their own hands. No field should understand that more deeply than public health, a discipline distinct from medicine. Whereas doctors and nurses treat sick individuals in front of them, public-health practitioners work to prevent sickness in entire populations. They are expected to think big. They know that infectious diseases are always collective problems becausethey are infectious. An individual’s choices can ripple outward to affect cities, countries, and continents; one sick person can seed a hemisphere’s worth of cases. In turn, each person’s odds of falling ill depend on the choices of everyone around them—and on societal factors, such as poverty and discrimination, that lie beyond their control.
And that might be the right way to save classics from oblivion.
My Atlantic colleague John McWhorter and I must have received the same high-frequency language-nerd alert, audible only to the types of people whose idea of fun is Esperanto grammar. We both recently learned that Princeton’s classics department had ceased requiring its students to study Latin and Greek, and we reacted in predictable horror. A classics department without Latin and Greek is like a math department without multiplication and division, or an art department without paint. More than a thousand years ago, the monk Ælfric prefaced his Latin Grammar by saying it was “the key that unlocks the understanding of books.” I had a vision of a new generation of Princeton classicists, sniffing and thwacking at padlocked volumes of Thucydides or Cicero with looks of total incomprehension, like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson trying to get the files “in the computer” in Zoolander.
The Human Genome Project left 8 percent of our DNA unexplored. Now, for the first time, those enigmatic regions have been revealed.
When the human genome was first deemed “complete” in 2000, the news was met with great international fanfare. The two rival groups vying to finish the genome first—one a large government-led consortium, the other an underdog private company—agreed to declare joint success. They shook hands at the White House. Bill Clinton presided. Tony Blair beamed in from London. “We are standing at an extraordinary moment in scientific history,” one prominent scientist declared when those genomes were published. “It’s as though we have climbed to the top of the Himalayas.”
But actually, the human genome was not complete. Neither group had reached the real summit. As even the contemporary coverage acknowledged, that version was more of a rough draft, riddled with long stretches where the DNA sequence was still fuzzy or missing. The private company soon pivoted and ended its human-genome project, though scientists with the public consortium soldiered on. In 2003, with less glitz but still plentyof headlines, the human genome was declared complete once again.
Many people who have been working from home are experiencing a void they can’t quite name.
This article was published online on June 9, 2021.
Back when commuting was a requirement for going to work, I once passed through a subway tunnel so filthy and crowded that the poem inscribed on its ceiling seemed like a cruel joke. “Overslept, / so tired. / If late, / get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / do it again.” “The Commuter’s Lament,” which adorns a subterranean passage in New York City’s 42nd Street station, made the already grim ritual of getting to and from work positively Dante-esque. But no one questioned the gist of it. The commute, according to the Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s research, ranked as the single most miserable part of our day. A Swiss study held long commutes responsible for “systematically lower subjective well-being.”
Simone Biles is the greatest athlete in the world today.
For me, this isn’t a debate. It’s a statement of fact. On Sunday, she won a record seventh United States gymnastics championship, continuing her jaw-dropping winning streak in every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013. The 24-year-old hasn’t lost in eight years. Typical gymnasts her age aren’t beating all their rivals by the big margins that, for Biles, have become routine.
Although Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43, he is no longer in his prime, and other Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, are arguably more physically talented. Unlike the current greats in other sports, Biles has no peer. Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time and among the greatest athletes of all time, but her career is winding down, and Naomi Osaka is in position to unseat her as the face of women’s tennis. LeBron James won’t get a chance to defend the NBA title he won with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, because the Phoenix Suns eliminated his team in the first round of this year’s playoffs.